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U.S. Offers Nuclear Security Assistance to Pakistan
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Alex Wagner

The United States has offered to help Pakistan secure its nuclear weapons and nuclear facilities following the September 11 terrorist attacks and the start of the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan.

During a November 1 press briefing, Pakistani Foreign Minister Abdul Sattar said that, during a mid-October meeting with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf in Islamabad, Secretary of State Colin Powell offered to invite Pakistani officials “to see how safety and security is ensured in the United States.” Asked if Pakistan had accepted, Sattar was widely reported to have responded, “Who would refuse?”

At an October 31 briefing, Powell said Musharraf “knows that if he needs any technical assistance in how to improve [Pakistan’s nuclear] security level, we would be more than willing to help in any way we can.” During a November 11 interview on NBC’s Meet the Press, the secretary added that he had had “direct conversations” with Musharraf about the risk of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal falling “into the wrong hands.”

Powell’s statement marked the first official U.S. acknowledgement that it has engaged Pakistan in post-September 11 talks on nuclear safety and security issues. Bush administration officials had previously denied Pakistani officials’ claims that Washington had held such talks with Islamabad. (See ACT, November 2001.)

Analysts have been concerned that Pakistani participation in the U.S. campaign against terrorism could result in political instability in Pakistan, which, in turn, could cause Musharraf’s government to lose control over its nuclear weapons or nuclear facilities. Reports that suspect-terrorist Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network may be seeking to steal nuclear weapons from Pakistan have also heightened concerns.

An administration official said that Pakistan appears willing to accept some U.S. nuclear-related assistance offers, asserting, “Pakistan feels such cooperation might help” improve its nuclear security and enhance “the steps it has already taken to improve the safety of its weapons and fissile material.”

During an interview, a Pakistani official said that Washington had also offered to help physically protect Pakistan’s nuclear facilities but that Islamabad had refused. According to a South Asian diplomat, U.S. technology placed at Pakistani nuclear facilities would be widely viewed in Pakistan as a means for the United States to “track and monitor” Islamabad’s nuclear program.

Pakistani Nuclear Security

Despite U.S. offers of assistance, senior Bush administration officials appear confident that Pakistan has sufficient control over its nuclear assets. During his Meet the Press interview, Powell said that he did not “see any risk” of Pakistan losing control of its nuclear weapons. Furthermore, during a November 7 interview with CNN, Wendy Chamberlin, the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, said that she did not “think that there is any threat that [Pakistan’s nuclear weapons] will fall into the hands of people that would use those against the U.S.”

During his November 1 briefing, Foreign Minister Sattar also gave assurances that Pakistan retains control over its nuclear infrastructure. Islamabad’s nuclear command and control are under “foolproof custodial controls,” he said. Sattar noted that the government has “constantly maintained, developed, and upgraded command and control systems and custodial security procedures” and has invested the “requisite financial and personnel resources in order to devise and apply ironclad measures to deal with all contingencies of threat to strategic assets.”

However, reports raising questions about the security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons have recently emerged. According to a November 11 Washington Post report, Pakistan’s military began to relocate “critical nuclear weapons components within two days of the September 11 terrorist attacks.” The relocation was reportedly prompted by fears over possible terrorist strikes against Pakistan’s nuclear facilities and was also intended to remove the weapons from “air bases and corridors that might be used by the United States in an attack on Afghanistan.” The Pakistani embassy in Washington said that the story had “no basis” said that Musharraf had denied the report.

Posted: December 1, 2001