Nuke Truths — U.S. Helped Create South Asian Standoff

Almost 40 years ago, the late Pakistani leader Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who was then serving as Pakistan’s foreign minister, famously declared “even if Pakistanis have to eat grass we will make the bomb.” India and Pakistan have since fought two conventional wars and now have nuclear weapons poised to complete the short five-minute arc to the other’s national capital.

Neither Pakistanis nor Indians had to eat grass to achieve nuclear capability. Instead, each looked West, assembling nuclear technologies with assistance from the very countries–including the United States–that now urge them to retreat from their nuclear saber rattling over the disputed territory of Kashmir.

Six of the eight industrialized nations known as the G-8–which recently called on India and Pakistan to “work with the international community to ensure that there will be a diplomatic solution to the current crisis”–helped provide the two nations with the raw materials and technical know-how to build their nuclear weapons.

A Canadian research reactor supplied the plutonium for India’s first nuclear device. The plutonium was extracted in an Indian reprocessing plant built with U.S. assistance. Germany supplied the tritium, beryllium, heavy-water plants, and reprocessing components necessary for constructing the bomb.

Pakistan developed its first nuclear weapon by using Canadian and Belgian heavy-water plants, German uranium enrichment technology, reprocessing techniques from France and the United Kingdom, and a U.S.-built research reactor.

In fact, Pakistan’s F-16 fighter jets, supplied by the Reagan administration, remain the country’s most reliable nuclear delivery vehicles.

As crucial as raw nuclear materials, technical assistance, and delivery vehicles are to the two countries’ nuclear weapons development programs, perhaps even more important is the continued relevance placed on nuclear weapons by Western nations. Both India and Pakistan are heavily influenced by the old cold war formula that possessing nuclear weapons equals world leadership and is essential to entering the “First World.”

The fact that since the end of the cold war no nuclear power has relinquished its nuclear weapons also has had a negative impact on both nations. As M. V. Ramana and A. H. Nayyar, physicists and peace activists from India and Pakistan respectively, wrote in a recent Scientific American article, “The continued reliance of the United States and Russia on thousands of nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert only adds to the perceived need for nuclear arsenals in India and Pakistan.”

President Bush quickly dispatched Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage to the region the first week of June in an attempt to defuse the terrifying nuclear standoff. Armitage dangled carrots for both sides, including promised debt relief, additional international aid, and enticements for Pakistan to become “a respected member of the international community,” in the words of a senior State Department official. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld visited the leaders of both countries in mid-June, and warned in a Pentagon report of the likelihood that 12 million people could be killed and an additional 6 million injured in a nuclear exchange.

But India and Pakistan’s game of nuclear chicken draws inspiration from America’s own nuclear policies: the United States has withdrawn from the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty, is developing new, more useable “mini” nuclear weapons, and is committed to deploying a multi-tiered ballistic missile defense system.

Our actions speak louder than words for Indian and Pakistani leaders. For the United States to help defuse the nuclear threat in South Asia, it must first examine the ways in which it has contributed to building and providing a rationale for that threat.