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U.S. confident of safety of nuclear weapons, despite al-Qaeda presence

B. Muralidhar Reddy
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A good 15 months before it killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, the United States was sure that al-Qaeda retained its presence in that country and was plotting “new attacks” against America and its allies from its safe havens there and in Afghanistan.

But it was emphatically confident that the terrorist group could not lay its hands on Pakistan's nuclear weapons guarded by the country's military and was at pains to explain that it did not have any plan to seize them.

It is not clear if this assessment has changed after the discovery that bin Laden was living in Pakistan for at least six years under the shadow of a military academy. But a U.S. diplomatic cable of December 2, 2009 (237503: unclassified) shows that the U.S. was convinced that Pakistan Army was doing a capable job of protecting the weapons.

The cable was accessed byThe Hinduthrough WikiLeaks.

Sent under the signature of the Secretary of State, the main purpose of the cable was to explain threadbare to U.S. Missions around the world a newly announced policy of the Obama administration on Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Along with the text of President Barack Obama's speech at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point on December 1, 2009, setting out “the way forward in Afghanistan and Pakistan” and a “fact sheet” about the new strategy (these are now on the White House website), the cable contains a series of Socratic-style questions and answers about the policy, for “internal use only,” and “not to be released to the public.”

In his speech, Mr. Obama had announced his administration's plans to deploy additional troops in Afghanistan to reinforce the 68,000 American troops already there, to weaken the Taliban, before an envisaged transfer of security responsibilities to Afghan forces and a drawdown of U.S. combat troops from the summer of 2011.

The “fact sheet” described the Af-Pak region as the “heart of the global violent extremism” where “new attacks” were being planned against the U.S. and its allies. “Al-Qa'ida remains in Pakistan where they continue to plot attacks against us and where they and their extremist allies pose a threat to the Pakistani state. Our goal in Pakistan will be to ensure that al-Qa'ida is defeated and Pakistan remains stable.”

The Q&A section of the cable sought to address tough questions that would be raised about the new policy, providing answers that it said would be useful to U.S. missions abroad while engaging with host governments, media and others.

Among the questions the cable posed was this one: “Al-Qa'ida's top leadership is in Pakistan; terrorists from Pakistan infiltrated Mumbai, India, and killed dozens of people; and all I see in this latest plan is more coddling of the Pakistani Government. We've treated the Pakistanis with kid gloves the past eight years. When are we finally going to play some hard ball?”

The reply: “Pakistan is a complex country, but also a critical ally in the common effort to fight violent extremists and promote regional security and the U.S. has a serious and ongoing dialogue with Pakistan on combating al-Qaeda and other extremists in South Asia.

“We work cooperatively with Pakistan to strengthen its counterinsurgency capacities to combat extremists. We understand and appreciate the sacrifices the people of Pakistan are making to win the war against extremism and bring security and peace to their country. Hundreds of Pakistani security officials have been killed in the fight against al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Pakistan.”

Another question the cable posed was whether the Pakistan government still maintained ties with extremist groups.

The reply: “We have made it clear to Pakistan that confronting violent extremism of all types is in its own interest and in the interest of regional stability. The Government of Pakistan increasingly sees violent extremists as a threat to the Pakistani state as well as to regional stability.”

To a question about the safety of Pakistan's nuclear weapons and whether the U.S. had any plans to seize them, the reply was emphatic: “The U.S. has no intention to seize Pakistani nuclear weapons or material and has confidence in the ability of the Pakistani government to protect its nuclear assets.”

The cable posed a second question on the subject: “Does the US have plans to seize Pakistan's nuclear weapons if they are in danger?” The reply was identical.

The Q &A document also fleetingly touches upon the sensitive question of why the U.S. was “so reliant in private contractors in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” and why the controversial security contractor Blackwater/Xe was still operating in both countries.

“We do not want to get into a discussion about what contractors may or may not be operating in Afghanistan and Pakistan…

“Contract services are sometimes needed. For those cases, we have strengthened monitoring and contracts. We have clearly signaled zero tolerance of contractor impropriety and our actions to force the removal of misbehaving employees and to review terms of such contracts sends that message loudly.”

The U.S. partnership with Pakistan, the cable explained, “is linked to our efforts in Afghanistan. To secure our country, we need a strategy that works on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border…”

Almost foreshadowing the operation in Abbottabad that killed the al-Qaeda chief, without mentioning the U.S unilateralism that characterised it, the cable went on to say: “The United States is committed to strengthening Pakistan's capacity to target those groups that pose the greatest threat to both of our countries. A safe haven for those high-level terrorists whose location is known, and whose intentions are clear, cannot be tolerated.”

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