National Security

WikiLeaks: U.S. Concerned About Pakistan's Nukes

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The deluge of WikiLeaks has reached one more key American relationship — that between the U.S. and Pakistan. The cables describe concerns that have come up again and again: Pakistan's support of the Taliban and the safety of the country's nuclear program.


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

The deluge of WikiLeaks has reached one more key American relationship, between the U.S. and Pakistan. The cables describe concerns that have come up again and again: Pakistan's support for the Taliban and the safety of Pakistan's nuclear program.

NPR's Julie McCarthy has more from the capital, Islamabad.

JULIE MCCARTHY: The latest cache of documents shows the United States more concerned than it has let on about Pakistan's nuclear program. The concern is widely shared. A Russian diplomat said there are 120,000 people directly involved in Pakistan's nuclear and missile program and there is no way to guarantee that all are 100 percent loyal and reliable.

Professor PERVEZ HOODBHOY (Quaid-e-Azam University): If you ask my personal opinion, I'd say that there is genuine reason to worry.

MCCARTHY: Physicist and social commentator Pervez Hoodbhoy says if the country's most guarded institutions can be attacked, why not nuclear facilities? One year ago, the army general headquarters came under assault. Hoodbhoy says in three different cities the country's premier spy agency, the ISI, has been attacked.

Prof. HOODBHOY: Obviously there was insider participation in this. And one cannot rule out that wherever the nuclear weapons are or wherever fissile material is produced, that there would not be some level of collusion between those who are inside and those who are outside, welded together by strong bonds of ideology.

MCCARTHY: Cables reveal the U.S. embassy remains worried about a stockpile of highly enriched uranium sitting at an aging research reactor that the United States had built for Pakistan under the Atoms for Peace Program 40 years ago.

In May of last year, Ambassador Anne Patterson, who finished her tour last month, reported that Pakistan continues to drag its feet on an agreement to have the United States remove the fuel. She says Pakistan has concluded it's too risky to let the Americans in because the local media would portray it as the United States taking Pakistan's nuclear weapons.

The case touches a sensitive nerve about mistrust and the safety of the world's fastest growing nuclear arsenal. But Pakistan's Ambassador to Britain, Wajid Hassan, told the BBC that the United States does not have to worry about he called the dearest assets we have.

Ambassador WAJID HASSAN (Pakistani Ambassador to Great Britain): We have always been telling them straightforward that they are in secure hands. They don't have to worry about it. And we'll protect them and we'll not allow them to fall into any adventurous(ph) hands.

MCCARTHY: Analyst Ahmed Rashid says more problematic than the nuclear gamesmanship between two allies is a costly arms race underway with India.

Mr. AHMED RASHID (Analyst): You have a budget which is very constrained because of the economic crisis and the floods. Yet we are still pursuing clearly a huge nuclear race. You have all the American money that is going to the Pakistani military - two to three billion dollars a year. How much of that is being used for the nuclear race, for example? I'm sure that is of concern to Congress and to the Obama Administration.

MCCARTHY: The classified memos are gloomy on Pakistan's backing of the Afghan Taliban that the United States and NATO are fighting next door. Ambassador Patterson concludes that no amount of money is going to convince the Pakistanis to abandon support for these groups, because they are viewed as a hedge against Pakistan's arch-enemy, India.

The cables also make clear where the power lies in Pakistan. Army chief Ashfaq Kayani mused to Ambassador Patterson about forcing out President Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of Benazir Bhutto. Zardari confided in Vice President Joe Biden that Kayani might try to kill him.

But Professor Pervez Hoodbhoy says there is little danger of the military attempting to take over.

Prof. HOODBHOY: It is economically very powerful. It has its own industries. It has its factories, airlines, insurance companies, banks, whatever. Why would they want to get into the messy business of governing a country that's so hard to govern?

MCCARTHY: The U.S. embassy says Zardari is a staunch U.S. ally, but his government is ineffectual and corrupt. Ambassador Patterson writes: The bureaucracy was settling into Third World mediocrity. A leading English newspaper said that shame is too little a word.

Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Islamabad.

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