US knew of Pak N-plan but did not act: Declassified documents
The US state department knew Pakistan’s uranium enrichment programme using gas centrifuge technology way back in January 1979, along with a nascent enrichment facility in Kahuta, according to newly declassified and available American government documents.
The documents posted on Tuesday by the National Security Archive, a non-government organisation that seeks to challenge government secrecy, published state department telegrams and internal memorandums from the time. Though alarmed by the discovery of Pakistan’s emerging nuclear capabilities, the Jimmy Carter administration refused to confront Islamabad for fear of alienating it at a time of challenging developments in the region - the Iranian revolution and growing Soviet Union influence in Afghanistan.
The Carter administration also did not want to push Pakistan too hard because it saw it as a counterweight to Soviet-partner India, the documents show. “Pakistan is moving rapidly and secretly towards the construction of facilities which will give it nuclear explosive capability perhaps within two to four years,” wrote Harold Saunders, the then assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern and South Asian affairs, and Thomas Pickering, then assistant secretary for oceans, international environmental, and scientific affairs, to then secretary of state Cyrus Vance in January 1979.
Pakistan would test its nuclear weapons, thus made its programme public, almost 20 years later in 1998, in response to Pokhran II tests by India, which, incidentally, had first revealed its nuclear capabilities in 1974 with Operation Smiling Buddha.
Saunders and Pickering had gone on to lay down policy options for the United State to response, among them was aid-cut, which was not recommended as it could “complicate” matter, and direct contact with the Pakistanis, including an invitation to President Zia ul-Haq when the “dust has settled on the Bhutto case”. Former prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who had been overthrown by Zia in 1977, was on death row then, and hanged in April 1979.
President Carter, who came to office as a strong opponent of proliferation, faced an “acute dilemma” over Pakistan because, the National Security Archive said citing another January 1979 State telegram, “we (the US under Carter) wish to be more supportive” of Islamabad in the wake of a revolution in Iran and growing Soviet influence in Afghanistan.
The then administration also “worried that pushing too hard on proliferation concerns could alienate Pakistan - a regional counterweight to Soviet partner India - and produce greater instability in the region”.
“Ultimately, the archive added, “Carter held back from confronting Islamabad over its nuclear programme.”
The Saunders-Pickering memo had been based on two findings, the National Security Archive said: One, Pakistan was found ‘building a facility capable of small-scale reprocessing, near the PINSTECH (Pakistan Institute for Science and Technology) research centre that would be capable of producing enough plutonium for at least one nuclear device annually. This was a reference to the ‘New Labs’ project, among other activities.
The second was that a “secret gas centrifuge programme is intended to yield significant quantities of HEU (highly enriched uranium)”. The Pakistanis had already “succeeded in operating small number of centrifuge units”.
Moreover, the archive said, referring to Kahuta, but not naming it, the Pakistanis “have plans for 7,000 units, and have begun to construct buildings to house the facility and to acquire equipment for the plant.” It would take about 2 years of work for the plant to operate and another two years before it could produce HEU.