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Last Updated:6/29/2010

US aid fuels dangerous deal in Pakistan

By Selig S. Harrison
June 29, 2010

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WITH ONE hand, Pakistan scoops up its multiplying millions in US aid. With the other, it buys nuclear reactors from China that will give it the capability to add 24 nuclear weapons per year to its estimated existing arsenal of 70 to 90.

The Obama administration is focused narrowly on the Islamist threat in Pakistan. It has soft-pedaled its opposition to Islamabad’s $2.4 billion, US-subsidized purchase of two 635 megawatt reactors from Beijing for its plutonium production complex at Chasma. But precisely because Islamist forces are expanding, the United States should refocus on the growing danger that Islamist sympathizers in the armed forces and their intelligence agencies will once again make Pakistan a nuclear rogue state.

It was only six years ago that Pakistan’s nuclear czar, Abdul Qadeer Khan, was arrested for running a global nuclear Walmart that enabled Iran, North Korea, and Libya to start their nuclear programs. The CIA and the International Atomic Energy Agency are still barred from questioning him because the Pakistan Army fears that he would expose the role played by high-level military officers in colluding with him and in profiting from what he did.

Several confidantes of Khan have told me that he is ready to name names. In their study of the Khan scandal, Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark concluded that Khan was “the fall guy. This covert trade in doomsday technology was not the work of one man, but the foreign policy of a nation and supervised by Pakistan’s ruling military clique.’’

With the Khan case still in limbo, the acquisition of more plutonium reactors on top of Islamabad’s existing uranium-based nuclear program is alarming. The Obama administration expressed pro forma opposition to the Chasma deal at the New Zealand meeting last week of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, a 46-nation global nuclear watchdog agency. But the United States is not using its massive aid leverage to block it, despite the fact that US aid is subsidizing the deal.

Pakistan’s economic solvency rests largely on US financial support. In addition to earmarked economic and military aid and US-backed international Monetary Fund credits, US aid has included $10.5 billion in cash payments to the armed forces that are nominally to reimburse counter-terrorism activities but go into the general budget and can be diverted without US oversight to other uses. Pakistan’s foreign debt is nearing $15 billion, and it is only because a US orchestrated aid consortium keeps rescheduling the debt that Pakistan remains afloat economically.

Although the Chinese-built reactors at Chasma will be under IAEA safeguards, Pakistan’s Kahuta uranium enrichment plant and another plutonium reactor at Khushab are not under safeguards and are used for its nuclear weapons program. The Suppliers Group bars nuclear exports to countries that have not placed all their nuclear facilities under IAEA inspection. Nevertheless, Beijing argues, Pakistan should be given an “exception’’ for the Chasma reactors because India was given one two years ago.

Both India and Pakistan have refused to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. India, however, has maintained strict controls on the export of nuclear technology, in accordance with NPT guidelines, and for this reason was given an “exception’’ to facilitate implementation of the 2008 US civilian nuclear cooperation agreement with New Delhi. By contrast, Pakistan has the most egregious record of trampling non-proliferation norms of any country.

Pakistan, like India, needs nuclear power for electricity, and hopefully, its future evolution will some day reduce the risks of a civilian nuclear program. But for the foreseeable future, the risks of adding to its nuclear capabilities are unacceptable. The repeated Islamist attacks on Pakistan’s nuclear installations in recent years make clear that the leakage of fissile material and of the components of its nuclear weapons is a clear and present danger despite IAEA safeguards.

The United States should aggressively seek China’s expulsion from the Suppliers Group unless it cancels the Chasma deal. It should condition new aid to Pakistan on the termination of nuclear purchases from China, unfettered access to Khan, the full disclosure of hitherto-suppressed details of his nuclear transfers and the removal of his collaborators from Army positions related to nuclear security.

Pakistan poses many dangers to the United States, notably its aid to Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan and the use of its territory for the training of would-be suicide bombers. But the greatest of all is that fissile material will be smuggled out of its nuclear facilities by undetected Islamist sympathizers and that a future leadership infiltrated by Islamists will risk a nuclear Armageddon in Mumbai or Washington.

Selig S. Harrison is director of the Asia Program at the Center for International Policy and the author of five books on South Asia.

© Copyright 2010 The New York Times Company

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