Michael Bronner

In an extraordinary public statement on live television earlier this week, on the eve of Pakistani Prime Miniser Nawaz Sharif’s visit to the White House, Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary, Aizaz Chaudhary, confirmed for the first time that his country has built small, mobile, “battlefield” nuclear weapons it intends to use against India in future confrontations.

“Pakistani generals consider them big artillery shells, not weapons of mass destruction,” John McCreary, a veteran Defense Intelligence Agency analyst with deep experience in the region, wrote of the miniturized nukes last Wednesday in his overnight newsletter Nightwatch. “Their use is not unthinkable. They are not a weapon of last resort. They are a weapon of first resort. The mindset is that of an artillery man firing a powerful gun.”

The Pakistani foreign secretary cited India’s overwhelmingly greater conventional military strength as justification for deploying the tactical nukes, which means any serious conventional confrontation by default could very quickly escalate to a nuclear exchange. Overall, Pakistan is producing nuclear weapons with such rapidity that the country’s stockpile is poised to surpass Britain, France and China within five to 10 years – to about 350 warheads, making it the worlds third-largest after the US and Russia.  

And the extraordinary US reaction to the latest in Pakistan’s extraordinary nuclear proliferation? 

The Obama Administration – “loathe to antagonize Islamabad at a crucial moment in the war in Afghanistan,” as The New York Times put it – is pushing through a sale of advanced F-16 fighter jets to Pakistan. 

It’s hard to overstate the critical mass of déjà vu: 

Back in the 1980s, before Pakistan had the bomb, it was the Reagan Administration, “loathe to antagonize Islamabad at a crucial moment in the [previous] war in Afghanistan,” that wittingly turned a blind eye to Pakistan’s race to acquire nuclear weapons (in violation of existing US law) on the pretext of preserving Pakistan’s assistance in the funneling money and guns to Osama bin Laden, et al, in their epic fight against the Soviets. 

Then, in a similarly illegal follow-on less than two years later, the George H.W. Bush Administration approved a huge (lucrative) sale of F-16s to Pakistan despite secret evidence that its scientists, likely using a Chinese warhead design, had actually assembled a nuclear weapon. 

“There was a deliberate decision in the 1980s to allow Pakistan to obtain nuclear weapons,” says Richard Barlow, then the CIA’s primary intelligence officer for discerning and disrupting Pakistan’s clandestine nuclear weapons program. “We were in a position to stop that relatively easily, and we chose not to.”

In 1987, Barlow engineered a complex sting operation that exposed a Pakistani agent attempting to purchase 25 tons of specialty steel to make high-speed gas centrifuges for spinning uranium into weapons-grade nuclear bomb fuel, as well as beryllium, a rare, lightweight, extremely strong metal used to boost a warhead’s explosive power. It was but one of “scores” of cases, he later testified, in which US intelligence had evidence of Pakistan acquiring parts and materials for a covert nuclear weapons program. 

The arrest, by law, should have put a bullet in Pakistan’s proliferation network.

The 1985 “Solarz Amendment” to the Foreign Assistance Act, championed by Congressman Stephen Solarz (D-NY), was designed to cut off all military and economic aid to countries illegally exporting or attempting to export nuclear-related materials from the US. The 1985 Pressler Amendment, also relevant, required the President of the United States to certify each year that Pakistan did not have nuclear weapons.  

The CIA’s Directorate of Operations – the side of the building running the covert operations in Afghanistan – responded to Barlow’s operation by blackballing him out of the agency. Charlie Wilson's War continued.

Barlow soon landed at the Office of the Secretary of Defense – Dick Cheney’s Pentagon. By then, the US intelligence community had evidence that Pakistan had assembled a nuclear weapon. Working with some of the most highly classified intelligence in the US system, Barlow discovered that Pakistani engineers had modified previously-acquired US-made F-16s to carry, arm and drop “the bomb” in flight (the pilot would pull up, rocketing skyward as fast as possible in hopes of escaping the blast!). The discovery threatened the latest F-16 sale to Pakistan. Barlow was blackballed again in a staggering full-court character assassination that has become one of the most investigated cases in the history of American intelligence.

“Congress was being lied to,” he told Warscapes. “We knew Pakistan had already manufactured a nuclear weapon, which was a violation of the Pressler Amendment – which means it’s over! There are no F-16 sales, or military sales of any kind.”

But there were: Despite the resounding evidence of a nuclear weapons program, President George H.W. Bush certified that Pakistan had no nuclear weapons that year, and the F-16 sale went through (by the following year, Pakistan actually deployed its nuclear weapons; the Bush Administration could no longer get away with certifying that Pakistan was nuclear weapons-free and the sale was frozen under the Pressler Amendment).

Long after the Soviets were run out of Afghanistan, successive US administrations have found new reasons to “loathe” antagonizing Islamabad: 9/11, the War on Terror, the current Afghan war – and the very fact that Pakistan maintains a huge nuclear arsenal in one of the world’s most insecure regions, the fear of which the US has responded to, incongruously, by flooding the country with billions in military hardware and aid (a degree of blackmail power not lost on Iran!).

Meanwhile, Pakistan exported its nuclear weapons program to North Korea, Iran and Libya – none of which would have nuclear programs the world would have to worry about today had the US followed its own laws in the period Pakistan was pursuing, but had not yet acquired, nuclear weapons.  

For Barlow, the news this week was déjà vu all over again. 

“No one talks about it, but where is Pakistan getting everything they need to make these new nuclear weapons? They still have clandestine procurement networks, which I’m sure we know all about, and are doing nothing about,” he said. 

The rationale offered by successive US administrations for continuing to offer Pakistan additional conventional weapons systems, like F-16s, has been the hope that conventional strength will deter the country from producing additional nuclear weapons – which obviously not only hasn’t worked, but makes Pakistan more threatening to India, which in turn makes a nuclear exchange more likely. 

“They’ve fucked up so badly,” Barlow says of nearly three decades of elected US leaders, “that there really is no solution to the Pakistan nuclear problem short of military action. The incremental ‘solutions’ are actually more and more insane.”

The closest acknowledgement of the insanity by any US official implicated in abetting Pakistani nuclear proliferation back when it mattered most came, unexpectedly, from Paul Wolfowitz in his confirmation hearing for Deputy Secretary of Defense in 2001, when he reflected on his time in the Pentagon during the George H.W. Bush Administration. 

“People thought we could somehow construct a policy on a house of cards - that the Congress wouldn’t know what the Pakistanis were doing," Wolfowitz testified. "I’ve always thought that policies based on withholding information from Congress are bound to fail in the long run. And that there was a clear legal obligation to keep Congress informed.”   

That Wolfowitz would go on in short order to be part and parcel in misleading Congress about phantom Iraqi WMD – another disastrous house of cards – is less indicative of his personal character, or even of the perpetual predilection of US officials more broadly to hoodwink the public (on torture, mass surveillance, etc.), than it is of the public’s profound failure to interrogate the history and rationale behind the day’s most exigent issues and hold leaders’ feet to the fire. 

In the interim, better tell Lockheed Martin to crank up the assembly lines! 

Michael Bronner is editor-at-large for Warscapes magazine. Twitter @michaelbronner