Watching The Warheads
The risks to Pakistan's nuclear arsenal
Seymour M. Hersh
The New Yorker
October 2001 (Issue of 5 November 2001)
An élite Pentagon undercover unit—trained to slip into foreign countries and find suspected nuclear weapons, and disarm them if necessary—has explored plans for an operation inside Pakistan...
The American team is apparently getting help from Israel's most successful special-operations unit, the storied Sayeret Matkal
The Bush Administration's hunt for Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda network has evolved into a regional crisis that has put Pakistan's nuclear arsenal at risk, exacerbated the instability of the government of General Pervez Musharraf, and raised the possibility of a nuclear conflict between Pakistan and India. These unintended consequences of the President's decision to mount air and ground attacks on the Taliban government in Afghanistan have created a serious rift between our government's intelligence and diplomatic experts on South Asia and the decision-makers of the Bush Administration.
Musharraf's standing has become more precarious as the intense American air war produces greater numbers of civilian casualties, street demonstrations in Islamabad, Quetta, Peshawar, and elsewhere, and discontent within his own military. The Administration's top officials are known to view the threat to Musharraf as potentially dangerous but manageable. "I was worried initially," a senior military planner told me. "But Musharraf has done a good job. He's put the hard-liners in a box and locked it." The officer was referring to Musharraf's decision three weeks ago to force the resignation or reassignment of a group of Army and intelligence officers he considered untrustworthy. (Musharraf himself came to power in a coup against Pakistan's elected government, in 1999, with the help of those officers.) Similarly, a former high-level State Department official, who maintains close contact with events in Pakistan, said he understands that Musharraf has assured the Bush Administration that "only the most reliable military people remain in control of the arsenal, and if there's any real worry he'd disarm them. He does not want the crazies to precipitate a real war."
Nonetheless, in recent weeks an élite Pentagon undercover unit—trained to slip into foreign countries and find suspected nuclear weapons, and disarm them if necessary—has explored plans for an operation inside Pakistan. In 1998, Pakistan successfully tested a nuclear device, heralded as the Islamic world's first atomic bomb. According to United States government estimates, Pakistan now has at least twenty-four warheads, which can be delivered by intermediate-range missiles and a fleet of F-16 aircraft.
Some of the government's most experienced South Asia experts have doubts about Musharraf's ability to maintain control over the military and its nuclear arsenal in the event of a coup; there are also fears that a dissident group of fundamentalist officers might try to seize a warhead. The Army and the influential Inter-Services Intelligence, or I.S.I., have long-standing religious and personal ties to many of the leaders of the Taliban, dating back to Afghanistan's war against the Soviet Union in the nineteen-eighties, when Pakistan was the main conduit for American support.
One U.S. intelligence officer expressed particular alarm late last week over the questioning in Pakistan of two retired Pakistani nuclear scientists, who were reported by authorities to have connections to the Taliban. Both men, Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood and Chaudry Abdul Majid, had spent their careers at the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission, working on weapons-related projects. The intelligence officer, who is a specialist in nuclear proliferation in South Asia, depicted this latest revelation as "the tip of a very serious iceberg," and told me that it shows that pro-Taliban feelings extend beyond the Pakistani Army into the country's supposedly highly disciplined nuclear-weapons laboratories. Pakistan's nuclear researchers are known for their nationalism and their fierce patriotism. If two of the most senior scientists are found to have been involved in unsanctioned dealings with the Taliban, it would suggest that the lure of fundamentalism has, in some cases, overcome state loyalty. "They're retired, but they have friends on the inside," the intelligence officer said.
Musharraf and many of his newly appointed senior aides are muhajir—immigrants who fled to Pakistan from India after Partition, in 1947—but they are in charge of an Army that traditionally has been dominated by officers from the Punjab region. Even now, an estimated ninety per cent of the officers are Punjabi. "These things matter a lot," a retired Pakistani diplomat told me. "The Punjabi officers would be thinking that there's an earthquake or a revolution taking place. Is it because of the ethnic background of Musharraf? Don't write off the unhappiness within the Army."
The former diplomat also took issue with the Bush Administration's belief that Musharraf has resolved the loyalty issue by replacing top commanders with officers believed to be less ideological. "To remove the top two or three doesn't matter at all," he said. "The philosophy remains." The I.S.I., he added, is "a parallel government of its own. If you go through the officer list, almost all of the I.S.I. regulars would say, of the Taliban, 'They are my boys.' "
With no sign that the Taliban leadership is weakening, Musharraf, under threat, is suspected by some officials in Washington and New Delhi of seeking to placate the fundamentalists by looking the other way during renewed terrorist attacks in the last month, allegedly sponsored by the I.S.I., on Indian targets in the disputed region of Kashmir. India and Pakistan have gone to war twice over Kashmir, which is dominated by India but has a mostly Muslim population, and it is a highly emotional issue for fundamentalists in the I.S.I. and the Taliban.
With the continued American bombing of the Taliban, the strategic risks are escalating. Our government is, in effect, working against itself as the air war in Afghanistan intensifies the political pressure on Musharraf—internally from the I.S.I., and externally from the street demonstrations against him, which are led by the fundamentalists. "Nobody's going to move against Musharraf unless there's an uprising in the streets," a second Pakistani diplomat told me. "How to prevent the uprising is to stop dropping bombs on civilian targets."
Critics of the Administration's policy emphasized in interviews that they viewed the war against the Taliban as just. The problem is that the bombing has not had the quick, decisive effect that military planners had hoped for. One senior Administration official told me last week that, despite the bombings and the efforts by C.I.A. operatives in the area to persuade Taliban commanders to defect, "People in my building wonder why there hasn't been a truly significant defection." In a subsequent interview, a former C.I.A. officer provided one reason for that failure. The agency, he said, had few or no people in the field who speak fluent Pashto, the language of the Taliban, and had been forced to rely on I.S.I. officers to communicate its offers to potential defectors. Thus, he said, "the same Pakistani case officers who built up the Taliban are doing the translating for the C.I.A. It's like using the Gottis to translate a conversation with the Lucheses." Another intelligence officer depicted the language situation in Afghanistan as "madness." He added, "Our biggest mistake is allowing the I.S.I. to be our eyes and ears."
It was a lack of operational security that, apparently, led to the death, late last week, of one of the most prominent operatives in the Taliban war. According to press reports, Abdul Haq, an Afghan guerrilla leader who was a hero in the war against the Soviets, had been ambushed and executed after a two-day standoff in eastern Afghanistan. Haq was said by the Taliban to have been on a mission for the United States, and to have been carrying large amounts of money—presumably to be used to induce Taliban commanders to defect. An Afghan press report subsequently quoted a Taliban spokesman who said that fifty of Haq's supporters, possibly including "foreigners," had also been surrounded. Haq's death was a major setback to the American anti-Taliban effort and to Pakistan's hopes of forming a broad-based new government in Afghanistan. One of Haq's close friends, Kurt Lohbeck, a former stringer for CBS Television who covered the Afghan-Soviet war for years, acknowledged in a telephone interview that Haq, who prided himself on his independence, had been on a temporary assignment for the C.I.A. at the time of his death, although he "never worked with them, for them, or loved them." Lohbeck told me, "He had two or three top Taliban people who were willing to defect, and he was going in with C.I.A. support and money to get these guys." Instead, he was double-crossed by the Taliban. "I'm furious at the C.I.A.," Lohbeck said. "They didn't provide operational security."
As Osama bin Laden continued to elude the American forces, there was talk in the Pentagon and the White House last week of lowered expectations. A high-level former intelligence official talked about how the air attacks had "contained" bin Laden and the Taliban leadership, rather than about the prospect of actually capturing him. Bin Laden, one senior general told me, may not be dead, "but he's hiding in a cave at six thousand feet freezing his ass off." The former State Department official acknowledged that the air attacks thus far had not been a success and added, "What worries me is if, a month from now, bin Laden gets on Al-Jazeera and thumbs his nose at us. It'd be a huge loss of prestige for the United States."
The White House's Afghanistan dilemma, and the risks of its war, were clearly spelled out last week in a speech given by Senator Joseph R. Biden, Jr., a Democrat and the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "The President has not been as blunt as I'm going to be," Biden told a meeting of the Council on Foreign Relations. "Pakistan may very well, and Musharraf may, in fact, collapse. It may be gone. . . . If that were the case, we would find ourselves with a whole hell of a lot more forces in the region than we have now."
Biden asked rhetorically, "How much longer does the bombing continue? Because we're going to pay an escalating price in the Muslim world. We're going to pay an escalating price in the region. And that in fact is going to make the aftermath of our 'victory' more difficult. . . . I hope to God it ends sooner rather than later." Biden also had these words for the Musharraf regime: "We have to make clear to the Pakistanis that, notwithstanding the fact that we need you very much right now . . . if you are going to continue to foment the terror that does exist in Kashmir, then you are operating against your own near-term interests, because that very viper can turn on you."
Biden came as close as any Democrat has come since September 11th to straightforward criticism of President Bush's war aims. The White House had no specific response, but Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, a Republican from Illinois, depicted Biden's public skepticism about the bombing as "completely irresponsible." In a statement, Hastert said that the "American people want us to bring these terrorists to justice. They do not want comments that may bring comfort to our enemies."
The crisis may bring into play the élite unit, operating under Pentagon control with C.I.A. assistance, whose mission it is to destroy nuclear facilities, past and present government officials told me. "They're good," one American said. "If they screw up, they die. They've had good success in proving the negative"—that is, in determining that suspected facilities were not nuclear-related.
The American team is apparently getting help from Israel's most successful special-operations unit, the storied Sayeret Matkal, also known as Unit 262, a deep-penetration unit that has been involved in assassinations, the theft of foreign signals-intelligence materials, and the theft and destruction of foreign nuclear weaponry. Sayeret Matkal's most memorable operation took place in June, 1976, when Lieutenant Colonel Jonathon Netanyahu, brother of the future Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, led a team that stormed a hijacked Air France airliner that was forced down by Palestinian terrorists at Entebbe International Airport, in Uganda, after taking off from Tel Aviv with two hundred and fifty-seven passengers. Jonathon Netanyahu was killed in the raid, along with two of the hostages, but the operation is still considered one of the most successful and audacious in modern history. Members of the Israeli unit arrived in the United States a few days after September 11th, an informed source said, and as of last week were training with American special-forces units at undisclosed locations.
In recent weeks, the Administration has been reviewing and "refreshing" its contingency plans. Such operations depend on intelligence, however, and there is disagreement within the Administration about the quality of the C.I.A.'s data. The American intelligence community cannot be sure, for example, that it knows the precise whereabouts of every Pakistani warhead—or whether all the warheads that it has found are real. "They've got some dummy locations," an official told me. "You only get one chance, and then you've tried and failed. The cat is out of the bag."
Some senior officials say they remain confident that the intelligence community can do its job, despite the efforts of the Pakistani Army to mask its nuclear arsenal. "We'd be challenged to manage the problem, but there is contingency planning for that possibility," one Bush military adviser told me last week. "We can't exclude the possibility that the Pakistanis could make it harder for us to act on what we know, but that's an operational detail. We're going to have to work harder to get to it quickly. We still have some good access."
A senior military officer, after confirming that intense planning for the possible "exfiltration" of Pakistani warheads was under way, said that he had been concerned not about a military coup but about a localized insurrection by a clique of I.S.I. officers in the field who had access to a nuclear storage facility. "The Pakistanis have just as much of a vested interest as we do in making sure that that stuff is looked after, because if they"—I.S.I. dissidents—"throw one at India, they're all cooked meat." He was referring to the certainty of Indian nuclear retaliation: India's nuclear warheads are more numerous, more sophisticated, and more powerful than Pakistan's; its Army is twice as large; and its population is more than seven times as large.
The skeptics among intelligence and military officials, however, worry that there may not be enough reliable information about the location of all elements of the Pakistani nuclear arsenal. The C.I.A., they note, provided effective information on the warheads in the late nineteen-eighties and early nineties, when it worked closely with the Pakistani military in Afghanistan. At that time, the United States was a major supplier of arms and military technology to Pakistan. The agency recruited informants inside the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission, and the National Security Agency found a way to intercept the back-channel communications of Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, the German-educated metallurgist who had run Pakistan's nuclear laboratories since the nineteen-seventies and is known as the father of the Pakistani bomb. But those assets no longer exist.
"We lost our interest in that area, and we do not have the same level of contact or knowledge that we once did," a former high-level C.I.A. officer said. "Today, there is a whole set of information that, when it comes down to it, we don't have. We can't count warheads. We never had the capacity to count. What we did have was a capacity to produce unusual material"—on the general state of the Pakistani arsenal. "The idea that you know where the warheads are at any given moment is not right," he said. "As the operation approaches and the question 'How certain are you?' is asked, it becomes more difficult. The fact is, we usually know hours later. We never could do it in real time."
Other officials expressed concern about what any team sent to Pakistan could really accomplish without risking significant casualties. "How are you going to conduct a covert commando operation in the middle of the country?" the former high-level State Department official said. "We don't know where this stuff is, and it would take far more than a commando operation to get at it."
A government expert on Pakistan's nuclear capabilities depicted the issue in strategic terms: "The United States has to look at a new doctrine. Our nuclear strategy has to incorporate the fact that we might have a nuclear-armed fundamentalist government in Pakistan. Even if we know where the weapons are now, it doesn't mean we'll know where they are if the fundamentalists take over. And after Pakistan it could be Iran and Iraq. These are countries that support state terrorism." Intelligence officials told me they believe that, in case of an imminent threat, the Indian military's special commando unit is preparing to make its own move on the Pakistani arsenal.
Kashmir remains, as always, an issue that could spark a general war in South Asia. The territory, on the northern border of India, spanning the Himalayas, has been a subject of dispute since 1947, when Britain's withdrawal from the subcontinent led to the partition of the Raj into India and Pakistan. In 1949, a ceasefire brokered by the United Nations placed about two-thirds of Kashmir, whose population was seventy-five per cent Muslim, under the control of India, and gave nominal control of the remaining third to Pakistan. A U.N. resolution called for a plebiscite to allow the people of Kashmir to vote on their political fate, but India has not permitted the election to take place, insisting that Pakistan must first withdraw its troops. Pakistan refused to do so unless India also withdrew. Over the years, India has taken advantage of the impasse by increasing military and political control over its mandated area of Kashmir, infuriating the Muslims there.
The ancestral home of the late Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Kashmir has a revered status for Indians, and many believe that their country needs to hold on to the Muslim region in order to maintain its identity as a secular nation. Pakistanis believe that Kashmir, because of the Muslim predominance, should have become part of their nation at Partition. For most Indians and Pakistanis, it is an issue beyond political compromise, and Pakistan has responded to India's insistent presence by sponsoring terrorism in an effort to foment revolution. The two countries have gone to war over Kashmir twice, each time without a clear resolution.
India has had a tactical atomic bomb since the nineteen-seventies, and Pakistan's became operational in the late nineteen-eighties, although Pakistani leaders denied this fact for years. The Kashmiri dispute first veered close to nuclear confrontation in 1990. That spring, the American National Security Agency was monitoring what seemed to be yet another slowly escalating series of Pakistani and Indian attacks, when intercepts revealed that the Pakistani leadership had "panicked," as a senior intelligence official put it, at the prospect of a preëmptive Indian strike and had readied its small arsenal of nuclear warheads. (The previous fall, the Bush Administration had assured Congress that Pakistan did not possess such weapons—although it knew better—in order to gain continued approval for military aid to the country.)
The crisis was resolved after American diplomats intervened. Afterward, intelligence analysts concluded that the leadership in both nations was willing to run any risk, including that of nuclear war, to avoid political or military defeat in Kashmir. There was another scare in 1999, a year after both India and Pakistan successfully tested warheads. The situation was defused only with help from President Clinton. Conditions are no more stable now. Terrorists operating out of training camps believed to be armed and financed in part by the I.S.I. continue to hit Indian targets, while India is known to have conducted deep-penetration raids against terrorist camps in Pakistan. A nuclear-threat assessment published last January by the Secretary of Defense bleakly concluded, "Given the long-standing hostility between the two countries, even a minor conflict runs the risk of escalating into an exchange of missiles with nuclear warheads."
Several weeks ago, on October 1st, Islamic terrorists exploded a car bomb near the state-legislature building in Srinagar, Kashmir, killing at least thirty-eight people, more than half of them civilians, and wounding scores of others. In a conversation last week, a former high-level Pakistani diplomat noted that although the bombing attracted widespread attention in the United States, its underlying significance and its links to the broader war on terrorism were not fully understood. "The terrorists are not ignorant," the diplomat explained. "The state legislature represents the link with Delhi, and hitting it symbolizes a rejection of the Indian Constitution." Two weeks after the car bombing, the Indians responded by shelling military positions across the ceasefire line. The Indian Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, whose political party is facing an important state election early next year, also brought back as Defense Minister George Fernandes, a hard-liner who had been removed from office in March after a bribery scandal. In his first press conference, Fernandes warned, "When it comes to punishing the enemy, we will hold back nothing."
India's rhetoric has not softened since then. Speculation about whether Musharraf is buying support, and time, from his antagonists within the I.S.I. by acquiescing to the guerrilla excursions inside Kashmir has become a repeated theme in Indian newspapers and in conversations with Indian diplomats. Another terrorist attack, on October 22nd, this time on an Indian airbase in Kashmir, failed when a group of would-be suicide bombers were killed in a shoot-out, but the event—it was the first time an airbase had been targeted—led Vajpayee to reject an offer from Musharraf to hold talks. Musharraf responded by warning darkly that Pakistan was "not a small country." That tense exchange made it clear that Secretary of State Colin Powell's highly visible visits to Pakistan and India, during which he urged both sides to resolve their differences over Kashmir through negotiation, had failed to ease the situation.
Two weeks ago, Richard N. Haass, the director of the Office of Policy Planning, was designated as the State Department's point man on the future of Afghanistan. Haass, who immediately scheduled a round of briefings on the situation in Pakistan, was a logical choice: he had been involved, as a junior White House aide, in the successful 1990 effort to prevent India and Pakistan from going to war over Kashmir.
Some of the officials I spoke to believed that India would not be the one to start a war. Last week, the Bush Administration was said to have obtained assurances of restraint from the Vajpayee government. (The Prime Minister, who cancelled a scheduled visit to the United Nations last month in the wake of the September 11th attacks, is scheduled to meet with President Bush in early November.) "The Indians are much stronger than the Pakistanis," a former high-ranking government official said. A crossborder invasion into Pakistan would be against India's interests, he said, because it would "force Musharraf's hand": if he responded, it would trigger a wider war; if he failed to respond, it could provoke a coup that would topple him. "Either way, India is worse off." He added, however, that the Indian government and its military and intelligence agencies remain deeply divided over how to proceed in Kashmir. "India could feel sufficiently provoked to preëmpt militarily," he said.
Referring to the air and ground war against bin Laden and the Taliban in Afghanistan, the former high-ranking government official, who has direct knowledge of the situation, said, "The Bush Administration is so focussed on the target and the objective that it's lost its peripheral vision. If Musharraf is toppled in a coup, or fears he'll be toppled, or, as a price for not being toppled, gives the I.S.I. permission to ratchet it up in Kashmir, that's very dangerous." (Neither the White House nor the State Department responded to a request for comment. A C.I.A. official who was asked to comment described the questions I raised as "policy issues," and added, "We don't do policy. I have nothing for you.")
A Pakistani diplomat I talked to last week acknowledged that the "situation is explosive." Much of the current dilemma, he told me, stemmed from the Reagan Administration's decision to finance many of today's I.S.I. and Taliban leaders in their successful war against the Soviet Union. "At one time, it was a three-way game," the former diplomat said. "The C.I.A., the I.S.I., and the mujahideen were creating these Frankensteins"—the Taliban—"and now the C.I.A. has pulled out, but you can't totally destroy the Frankensteins."
Another American intelligence official pointed out that Vajpayee, like Musharraf, was in a delicate position. "Vajpayee is under pressure to take out the camps in Pakistan and in the staging areas," the official said. The Prime Minister and his External Affairs Minister, Jaswant Singh, were "holding back the dam, but now that Fernandes is back Singh has lost influence," the official told me. "All the major figures in India said, 'We're not going to go across,' but that's if nothing else breaks out."
The former State Department official said that Musharraf, eager to find a way to justify the war to the Pakistani public, has sought in talks with U.S. officials to provide Pakistan's support in exchange for an American commitment to endorse the Pakistani position in Kashmir. The senior intelligence analyst confirmed that Indians had been alarmed by the muted private response of the Bush Administration to the October 1st bombing incident in Kashmir. "I've seen tough messages to the Pakistanis—'Keep these guys under control,' " he noted, but that message was not sent this time. He went on, "The I.S.I. is being allowed by Musharraf to develop policies of its own—to run Afghan policy and Kashmir policy. And that's where the danger is, if we continue to push the Indians. What would happen if there's another attack like October 1st?" Referring to the senior managers of the Bush Administration, the intelligence analyst said, "Americans have underestimated Indian anger— underestimated the degree of antiPakistan feeling that has developed inside India."
Not everyone in the intelligence community believes that Musharraf could stop the cross-border activity even if he wanted to. "I doubt he is encouraging these attacks in Kashmir," a former official said. "But it's very hard for him to control it. He's not going to alienate the I.S.I.—he's going to need them if and when it comes to stopping a demonstration. He has less control than Arafat has over the terrorists in the West Bank."
"Nitrogen and glycerine are being shaken up here," the former high-ranking government official said. "The Pakistanis are the small, scared ones. And they might use nuclear weapons as an equalizer. The danger is that the fifty-year dynamic between India and Pakistan is the backdrop for a scenario in which someone could hit a button."
In a CNN television interview with Larry King last week, Musharraf dismissed the American concerns about the integrity of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal, depicting them as the thoughts of those in the West "who don't really understand the reality of Pakistan. . . . We have an excellent command-and-control system which we have evolved, and there is no question of their falling into the hands of any fundamentalists." However, in an interview last year with Jeffrey Goldberg, Musharraf described the arsenal's command-and-control mechanism as consisting of "a geographic separation between the warhead and the missile. . . . In order to arm the missile, the warhead would have to be moved by truck over a certain distance. I don't see any chance of this restraint being broken." He would not say how far apart the warhead and its launching missile were, or who controlled the system on a minute-to-minute basis.
"That's not a command-and-control system," one American intelligence expert subsequently told me. "You always keep the weapons separate." Musharraf's description, he added, "is like the argument the Pakistanis used to use in the late nineteen-eighties and early nineteen-nineties that they did not have a bomb because they hadn't put the components together." The intelligence expert also suggested that the Musharraf account was not credible. "What happens in a crisis? Are you going to have to drive warheads to the delivery vehicles? And leave you vulnerable to an enemy strike? A real command-and-control system allows you to have them ready to go, but always under the control of the leadership."
One longtime C.I.A. operative who served under cover in South Asia argued that Musharraf is simply telling Washington what it wants to hear. "Why should he tell us the truth?" the operative said. "He's fighting for his life. We sit there dumbly listening to him, and it's wrong."
Pakistani military officials have approached Pentagon officials several times in the past decade in an unsuccessful attempt to get support for an upgrading of Pakistan's nuclear command-and-control mechanisms. Senior military and proliferation officials in the Clinton Administration told me, however, that they had determined that such assistance was barred by the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons, ratified in 1968, which prohibits declared nuclear states from providing any support or guidance to any emerging nuclear power. One former Pentagon official caustically depicted the Clinton Administration's Pakistani command-and-control debate as being similar to the debate over condoms in high schools and needle exchanges: "If you give out condoms, are you condoning teen-age sex? If you give out needles, are you condoning drugs? By helping with command-and-control, are you condoning nuclear weapons?"