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Pakistan’s candidature for the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) membership and its claim as “a prospective member of the cartel on its own merit…with the possibility of strengthening the non-proliferation regime” warrants a serious scrutiny. At the outset, its aspiration for the membership has the India anchor, along with its plan to play the victim card of energy deficiency to divert global attention from its identity as a nuclear offender. A few western scholars have gone to the extent of proposing “nuclear rehabilitation” of Pakistan through a civil nuclear deal with the US by raising the question “how long will Pakistan pay the price for its past omissions?” Should Pakistan’s proliferation track-record be viewed as “solitary” and offered a rehabilitation package, including NSG membership and a civil nuclear deal akin to India’s, by “mutually reinforcing adjustments”? Have the dangers and proliferation concerns relating to Pakistan receded?


Past Imperfect


Pakistan has a chequered history of nuclear proliferation which has been documented widely. Starting from 1970s, the Pakistani proliferation Wal-Mart spanned several continents. With Pakistani scientists A.Q. Khan getting hold of the enrichment know-how from the Uranium Enrichment Company (URENCO), the Netherlands, Pakistan clandestinely procured sensitive materials and technology from several countries in Europe and America to build the Khan Research Laboratory (KRL) at Kahuta. Subsequently, countries like North Korea, Iran, and Libya became the beneficiaries of Khan proliferation network.


As far as US-Pakistan relations are concerned, how five consecutive US Administrations, from Jimmy Carter to George W. Bush concealed the exact nature of the Pakistani nuclear programme is investigated by Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark in their volume Deception (Penguin 2007). They have comprehensibly brought out how the “foreign policy of a nation, plotted and supervised by Pakistan’s ruling military clique”, and Dr. Khan was only the trademark on behalf of his government.


It all began during President Zia, with his mentor, Vice-Chief of the Army Staff Gen Mirza Aslam Beg and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) chief Gen Hamid Gul who designed a “regional strategic consensus” proposing that Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan should come together in a pact lubricated by nuclear cooperation. Further, it was suggested by Beg that “Pakistan should link up with Turkey, at the southern end of NATO, creating an Islamic crescent from Europe to Asia.” Most importantly, it was agreed that A. Q. Khan would be encouraged to share his achievements with the Islamic world.


Aslam Beg believed to have reached out to Saddam Hussein in Iraq, authorising a KRL agent to approach Baghdad for their offer of a nuclear bomb. The Pakistan-Iraq deal, codenamed “Project A/B”, comprised project designs for a bomb with the necessary components supplied by European companies operating through the nexus of Dubai.


The other customers in the Pakistani atomic bazaar were the Libyans and the Saudis. In 2001, when it was found that 40 canisters were missing from KRL, the ISI reasoned that some of the drums had probably gone to North Korea, some to Iran and probably some to Libya. Pakistan had also pledged to supply the Saudis with nuclear warheads for their Chinese CSS-II missiles.


Cooperation in the development of nuclear weapons between Pakistan and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) had begun since the 1970s, but seems to have accelerated some years after the 1998 Chagai tests. The radio charter revealed that Pakistan owed North Korea $40 million for the 1993 Nodong missile deal. In fact, even the US spy satellites revealed the transfer of missile components from North Korea to Pakistan in direct exchange of nuclear technology from Kahuta under General Pervez Musharraf’s watch. Since then, the Pakistani officials had been telling Pyongyang that the bill could not be paid. In lieu, Pakistan offered Pyongyang a uranium enrichment plant.


On the other hand, Beijing had supplied the nuclear-capable M-IIs to help Pakistan build its own plant to manufacture a generic version of the missile near Rawalpindi. In early 1996, Oehler, the director of the CIA’s Centre for Weapons Intelligence, uncovered that China was directly involved in the Pakistani nuclear programme. Intelligence showed that China was manufacturing centrifuge parts for A. Q. Khan. Also the China Nuclear Energy Industry Corporation had shipped to Karachi, 5,000 ring magnets and it is known that the M-II missiles were given to Pakistan.


The existence of the nuclear proliferation network architected by Pakistan came to light only in 2003 when the Iranian dissident group MEK revealed in a Press conference that Tehran was developing a nuclear programme with the largesse of the Pakistani military. With the increasing global public attention and outcry, Pakistan conveniently proclaimed that A. Q. Khan was “operating beyond the state”. Khan was also asked to confess publicly that “only he”, and nobody else, is responsible for the “unauthorised proliferation activities” run by him.


The other leg of Pakistan’s proliferation emanates from its nexus with China. Beijing, since the early 1980s, is known to have given for “free to Pakistan nearly everything it had needed to make its first atomic bomb.” This is unprecedented in the history of non-proliferation discourse where an NPT member assisted a non-NPT country to develop nuclear weapons clandestinely.


Most alarming was the news of two Pakistani nuclear scientists’ meeting with Osama bin Laden for possible collaboration just a month before the September 11 terrorist attacks. American intelligence officials informed Pakistan’s government of the meetings of Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood and Abdul Majeed with bin Laden and representatives of his Al Qaeda terrorist network.


An Introspection


Given this long proliferation record, any proposition on the ‘nuclear rehabilitation of Pakistan’ is eyebrow-raising. Before advocating for mainstreaming nuclear Pakistan, the world needs to introspect, if Pakistan has moved from where it was two decades ago? A cursory look at the current state of Pakistan would suggest that it is “neither a stable nor secure” state yet, though it has brought in a number of policy measures: export control reform in 2004; a Strategic Export Control Division was set up in the Foreign Ministry in 2007; harmonisation of the national export control list with the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) provisions, and no further confirmed cases of illicit nuclear transfers from Pakistan after the closing down of A. Q. Khan’s network. Pakistan’s nuclear security report card, in the process of Nuclear Security Summit (NSS), has been projected equally positively.


Should Pakistan therefore be recognized now “as a normal nuclear state and granted NSG membership and civil nuclear cooperation? Two reports and a testimony by western scholars on the nuclear status of Pakistan merit serious scrutiny. The study “Overcoming Pakistan’s Nuclear Dangers” by Mark Fitzpatrick of IISS (London) 2014 asks: “How long Pakistan must pay the price” for the A. Q. Khan nuclear proliferation network, which is “a solitary event”? Drawing a parallel to India’s performance, Fitzpatrick vouched that “the time has come to offer Pakistan a nuclear-cooperation deal akin to India’s”. Subsequently, a joint study by Michael Krepon (Stimson Center) and Toby Dalton (Carnegie, WDC), “A Normal Nuclear Pakistan” is an enthusiastic inquisition on whether the nuclear mainstream will continue to elude Islamabad, and the possibility of making Pakistan a ‘normal’ nuclear state.


On 8 December 2015, George Perkovich (Carnegie) in his testimony to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, the US, viewed the Obama administration’s wish to engage Pakistan in exploring a potential “nuclear deal” as constructive, but he is uncertain that “the governments of United States and Pakistan would be able to agree on conditions that would motivate both states to complete a nuclear cooperation agreement.” The puzzle, he thinks, is “what can and should be done to motivate Pakistan to continue to improve its controls over nuclear materials, equipment, and know-how…that proliferation will not occur again, either to states or to terrorists.”


A Prognosis


Yet, there is no consensus on Pakistan’s lobby for a clean chit on its past records. If the advocacy of mainstreaming of nuclear Pakistan is to be endorsed, one must enquire as to what would be the repercussions of such a step, especially keeping in mind Pakistan’s ‘India-parity syndrome’ and the impact it would have on the non-proliferation regime.


First, the Khan network is perceptibly a stain of the past. But one would never know how many such networks may be still operating. If A. Q. Khan could manage to run his network and other personnel could have links with the terrorist groups, despite some controls in place, what is the guarantee that a similar event will not recur? Moreover, future proliferators would not follow the traditional methods that have so far been followed. Given the increasing demand for nuclear energy and the spread of nuclear material and technology, proliferation of nuclear weapons in the future cannot completely be ruled out. But, given the stringent international vigilance, a Pakistani transfer of nuclear weapons to Saudi Arabia, or any other country for that matter, appears unlikely. The possibility of Pakistan developing and keeping a set of nuclear weapons in readiness on behalf of Saudi Arabia is long speculated, and such a scenario cannot be overruled completely.


Toby Dalton and others of Carnegie Endowment opine that Pakistan’s argument for a nuclear deal comparable to India’s is “primarily political-psychological”, and has been demurred by the US, France, UK and others. However, they argue that Pakistan should be considered for the NSG waiver provided the bar for Pakistan’s membership in the NSG is set higher than that the one set for India in 2008. They acknowledge the fact that Pakistan’s nuclear calculus is quite different from India’s; hence, more will be required of Pakistan than was expected of India in 2008. Therefore, the criteria and benchmarks for Pakistan to qualify for a rehabilitation package must be high, largely to ensure, first, that past mistakes are not repeated; second, to mitigate the scope for any such acts in the future.


The fact is that “the tenacious efforts by United States to conduct nuclear trade with India and see it as a member of the NSG would reduce Pakistan’s space in the non-proliferation regime. It is highly probable that the doors for Pakistan’s nuclear mainstreaming will close permanently if India alone becomes a member of the non-proliferation regime before Pakistan.”


Therefore, the view of Pakistan as a prospective member of the NSG on its own merit has a weak standing. Any initiative to mainstream nuclear Pakistan must be undertaken with a list of hard bargains. Whether, and to what extent, Pakistan will concede to these bargains is a matter of speculation. Any demand for limitation on its deterrence posture including Tactical Nuclear Weapons (TNWs) would not be acceptable to Pakistan. A bargain to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) without waiting for India would be equally hard for Pakistan to digest. If Pakistan concedes its nuclear posture from “full spectrum” to “strategic” deterrence, it will prove Pakistan’s deterrence posture as feeble. Lifting its veto on Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT) negotiations and stopping fissile material production will heighten Pakistan’s fear of India’s upper hand in stockpile. For Pakistan, a slight reduction or reversal of its nuclear posture vis-à-vis India would be an act of compromise. If it accepts all the conditions, the disparity between India and Pakistan will remain!


Other desired measures like separating civilian assets from military facilities, a transparent nuclear posture of no-first-use (NFU), moratorium of further nuclear tests, reign on terrorist outfits, maintaining regional peace, etc. would not be difficult for Pakistan to pronounce if an India-type deal and NSG membership are ensured.


[This opinion piece forms a part of the themed article series “Pakistan and the Proliferation Axis” of the Science, Technology & Security forum.]


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal.