Despite pending economic catastrophe, Pakistan is producing nuclear weapons at a faster rate than any other country in the world, U.S. ambassador to Islamabad, Anne Patterson is believed to have said in a cable to Washington.

American and British diplomats fear Pakistan’s nuclear programme could lead to fissile material falling into the hands of terrorists or a devastating nuclear exchange with India.

The latest cache of U.S. embassy cables released by WikiLeaks contains warnings that Pakistan is rapidly building its nuclear stockpile despite the country's growing instability and “pending economic catastrophe”.

Mariot Leslie, a senior British Foreign Office official, told U.S. diplomats in September 2009: “The U.K. has deep concerns about the safety and security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons,” according to one cable classified “secret/noforn [no foreign nationals]”.

Seven months earlier, the U.S. ambassador to Islamabad, Anne Patterson, cabled to Washington: “Our major concern is not having an Islamic militant steal an entire weapon but rather the chance someone working in government of Pakistan facilities could gradually smuggle enough material out to eventually make a weapon”.

The leak of classified U.S. diplomatic correspondence exposes in fine detail the deep tensions between Washington and Islamabad over a broad range of issues, including counter-terrorism, Afghanistan and finance, as well as the nuclear question. U.S. concern over Pakistan's bomb programme was spelled out in an intelligence briefing in 2008. “Despite pending economic catastrophe, Pakistan is producing nuclear weapons at a faster rate than any other country in the world,” the secret cable said.

Ms. Leslie, director general of defence and intelligence at the Foreign Office, made clear the U.K. shared these anxieties when she spoke to U.S. diplomats at a London arms control meeting in September 2009. The Pakistanis were worried the U.S. “will drop in and take their nukes”, she said, according to a U.S. cable to Washington. Pakistan was now prepared to accept “nuclear safety help” from British technicians, but only under the auspices of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The cable said Ms. Leslie thought nuclear proliferation was the greater danger to the world, but it “ranks lower than terrorism on the public’s list of perceived threats”.

Another senior British official at the meeting, Jon Day, the Ministry of Defence’s director general for security policy, said recent intelligence indicated Pakistan was “not going in a good direction”.

The Russians shared concerns that Pakistan was “highly unstable”. Yuri Korolev, from the Russian foreign ministry, told U.S. officials: “Islamists are not only seeking power in Pakistan but are also trying to get their hands on nuclear materials”.

Speaking in February in Washington, he called for the problem of Pakistani nuclear sites to be addressed in ongoing missile control talks, claiming: “Over the last few years extremists have attacked vehicles that carry staff to and from these facilities. Some were killed and a number were abducted and there has been no trace seen of them”.

He said: “There are 120,000-130,000 people directly involved in Pakistan’s nuclear and missile programmes …There is no way to guarantee that all are 100% loyal and reliable”.

He claimed extremists were now recruiting more easily: “Pakistan has had to hire people to protect nuclear facilities that have especially strict religious beliefs, and recently the general educational and cultural levels in Pakistan has been falling”.

These fears are expressed in the secret state department files against a backdrop of Pakistani determination to build more nuclear warheads.

A Chinese foreign minister, He Yafei, sought to explain to the Americans why Pakistan was blocking fissile material control talks. At a London meeting in 2009, he said: “The underlying problem … is that India and Pakistan view each other as enemies. Nuclear weapons are crucial to Pakistan. Indeed, a Pakistani military leader said his army was no match for the Indian army”.

U.S. diplomats in Islamabad were told Pakistan was working on producing smaller, tactical nuclear weapons that could be used on the battlefield against Indian troops.

Operation Cold Start

“The result of this trend is the need for greater stocks of fissile material … Strategic considerations point Pakistan in the direction of a larger nuclear force that requires a greater amount of fissile material, Pakistani officials argue.”

The U.S. conducted its own secret analysis of India's military contingency plans, which are codenamed Cold Start. India has said that if sufficiently provoked, it would mount a rapid invasion of Pakistan.

The U.S. said in a cable that it doubted the Indian army was capable of doing so: “It is the collective judgment of the mission that India would likely encounter very mixed results. Indian forces could have significant problems consolidating initial gains due to logistical difficulties and slow reinforcement.”

But the U.S. ambassador to India, Tim Roemer, warned in February that for India to launch Cold Start, would be to “roll the nuclear dice”. It could trigger the world's first use of nuclear weapons since Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

“Indian leaders no doubt realise that, although Cold Start is designed to punish Pakistan in a limited manner without triggering a nuclear response, they cannot be sure whether Pakistani leaders will in fact refrain from such a response.”

Pakistan ‘in tatters’

A senior U.S. intelligence official was “unrelentingly gloomy” about Pakistan, the current safe haven for al-Qaida in the Afghanistan war, during a private briefing of Nato representatives.

Peter Lavoy, national intelligence officer for south Asia, concluded in November 2008 that nuclear-armed Pakistan's economy was “in tatters” and the country could “completely lose control of its Pashtun territories over the next few years”, according to a leaked U.S. cable.

More than a third of people were unemployed or underemployed, he said.

“Pakistan’s population is becoming less and less educated, the country lacks sufficient energy and clean water resources to serve its population, and there is minimal foreign investment.”

A few months later, in April 2009, Ms. Patterson was slightly less gloomy, saying Pakistan was not a “failed state”.

“We nonetheless recognise that the challenges it confronts are dire. The government is losing more and more territory every day to foreign and domestic militant groups; deteriorating law and order in turn is undermining economic recovery. The bureaucracy is settling into third-world mediocrity, as demonstrated by some corruption and a limited capacity to implement or articulate policy.”

She said: “Extremism … is no longer restricted to the border area. We are seeing young Punjabi men turn up in [the tribal areas] and Afghanistan as fighters recruited from areas of southern Punjab where poverty, illiteracy and despair create a breeding ground for extremism.”

The good news was that President Asif Ali Zardari “while far from perfect”, was “pro-American and anti extremist; we believe he is our best ally in the government”, she said.

This January, however, the U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, told Indian government officials in Delhi that: “the army was the key decision-maker while President Zardari was increasingly sidelined”. He said the civilian government had a limited capacity to move against groups behind the Mumbai terror attacks in 2008. — © Guardian News & Media 2010