Neighbours in Arms: The time India and Pakistan almost came to a nuclear exchange

Editor's note: As chairman of the US Senate’s Arms Control Subcommittee, Larry Pressler advocated the now-famous Pressler Amendment, enforced in 1990 when President George HW Bush could not certify that Pakistan was not developing a nuclear weapon. Aid and military sales to Pakistan were blocked, including a consignment of F-16 fighter aircraft, changing forever the tenor of the United States’ relationships with Pakistan and India, and making Pressler “a temporary hero throughout India and a devil in Pakistan”. In a new book, Neighbours in Arms, Senator Larry Pressler reveals what went on behind the scenes in the years when the Pressler Amendment was in force, through a cast of characters that includes presidents, prime ministers, senators and generals in the US, India and Pakistan. The following excerpt is from a chapter titled 'The Enforcement of the Pressler Amendment', reproduced here with permission from Penguin Random House.

‘It was the most dangerous nuclear situation we have ever faced since I’ve been in the US government. It may be as close as we’ve come to a nuclear exchange. It was far more frightening than the Cuban missile crisis.’

— Richard J Kerr, former deputy director of the CIA, in an interview with reporter Seymour Hersh, describing the 1990 nuclear standoff between India and Pakistan.

In June 1989, Pakistan’s new prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, addressed a joint session of Congress in the US, where she said, ‘Speaking for Pakistan, I can declare that we do not possess, nor do we intend to make, a nuclear device.’ I was present when she made that public testimony. It was an outright lie to Congress. But she just did not know it. When she was accused of lying, I came to her defence. She did not know about the nuclear weapons because the ISI never told her. They had developed a bomb without the approval or the knowledge of the prime minister and Parliament. Incredible!


The incident testifies to the power that the ISI wields in the Pakistani political system. When I spoke privately with her at a prayer breakfast during that same visit, she told me how hopeless she felt trying to govern when the ISI, with American generals coaxing them on, controlled everything in Pakistan. Consequently, I was disappointed when President Bush followed Reagan’s lead and, once again, issued a certification that Pakistan did not possess a nuclear weapon, in October 1989. An exasperated Senator Glenn took to the floor of the Senate in November of that year to protest this certification, asserting that:

'I must conclude that the President had to make the most narrow possible interpretation of law to conclude that Pakistan does not possess the bomb — a statement I find very difficult to accept and really believe. To me, the President’s action represents both bad policy and a disservice to a good law.'

Almost a year after the Soviet Army had withdrawn from Afghanistan, why did we feel the need to continue to funnel aid to Pakistan? I could not understand it. In October 1990, five years after the Pressler Amendment became law, President Bush finally invoked it. Why did President Bush enforce the law when President Reagan did not? Maybe it had something to do with the nuclear face-off between India and Pakistan in May 1990, a nuclear catastrophe narrowly avoided but kept largely under wraps by the US government until journalist Seymour Hersh revealed the details in an article in the New Yorker magazine on 29 March 1993.

Neighbours in Arms by Senator Larry Pressler

Neighbours in Arms by Senator Larry Pressler

Hersh was a controversial journalist, but on matters of Pakistan and the South Asia region, he was dead on. In this article, Hersh described how the American intelligence community witnessed in horror the fast-rising tensions between India and Pakistan in the spring of 1990, originating where it always seemed to, in Kashmir. Protests, rioting and an Indian police crackdown resulted in hundreds of Kashmiri civilian deaths. The Pakistanis’ reaction was frightening: intelligence analysts believed that Pakistan was training Muslim Kashmiri ‘freedom fighters’ on the border and outfitting a nuclear bomb that could be placed under the wing of an F-16.

The National Security Agency (NSA) had intercepted an order from the Pakistan Army’s chief of staff, General Mirza Aslam Baig, to actually assemble a nuclear weapon. The situation quickly escalated as India prepared an offensive ground strike into Pakistan and Pakistan planned to preempt this ground invasion with a nuclear hit on New Delhi. A quick intervention by American diplomats, including Robert Gates (who later served as President George W Bush’s and President Obama’s secretary of defense), was planned. Gates and his team were dispatched to the region to meet with the leaders of both India and Pakistan. They convinced both countries to stand down and move their troops away from the border. India agreed to improve the human rights conditions in Kashmir, and Pakistan agreed to shut down insurgent training camps in Kashmir. All sides agreed and war was averted, but many involved in the event consider it to be the closest the world has come to a nuclear exchange since the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

Everyone in Washington who was involved in non-proliferation knew about this crisis before Hersh’s article was published a few years later, but no one talked about it publicly. After this crisis, making the certification required under the Pressler Amendment was going to be very difficult and the State Department knew it. In August 1990, the department sent a ‘Top Secret’ memorandum to Brent Scowcroft, the President’s national security adviser. In it were recommendations that President Bush send letters to both Pakistan’s Prime Minister Bhutto and President Ghulam Ishaque Khan. The memo and draft letters, recently declassified and released, outlined a proposed diplomatic strategy that would allow President Bush to rationalise the Pressler Amendment annual certification. ‘We believe that non-certification would spark an accelerated Indo-Pak nuclear race, putting the pronuclear elements in both governments under highly public and emotional pressure to move ahead full tilt.’ Weren’t they already moving ahead ‘full tilt’ — with American taxpayers’ support?


The memo went on to recommend asking Pakistan,

to demonstrate tangibly that it is complying with the three steps we had earlier told them are essential for certification (cease production of highly enriched uranium, refrain from production of highly enriched uranium metal, ensure that Pakistan does not possess any highly enriched uranium metal in the form of nuclear device components).

The State Department made it clear they believed that Pakistan would never allow US officials to inspect its nuclear facilities:

Demanding inspection of all Pakistan’s HEU [highly enriched uranium] has almost no chance of acceptance. In these circumstances, if we believe the Pressler standard can be met with less than [an] inspection of HEU, we should not limit the President’s ability to certify by setting our standards at an unrealistically high level.

Essentially, the State Department was arguing that President Bush should be satisfied with Pakistan’s stated intentions. I could not understand how we could ever be satisfied by Pakistan’s promises. They were empty. President Bush obviously agreed. Two months later, he finally invoked the Pressler Amendment and refused to certify to Congress that Pakistan did not have a nuclear weapon. He bucked the State Department. How could he ever have made any other choice? Bush’s action stunned the world — and particularly the Octopus*. I was so happy and proud that Bush took this bold action. It was risky, because he might have incurred the wrath of all those who stood to gain from arms sales to Pakistan, including the delivery of numerous fighter jets with a nuclear delivery capability.

*By the Octopus, what is being referred to, is Washington, or the Military Industrial State. Andrew J Bacevich Sr, a professor at Boston University, and respected American military historian, wrote about the 'Octopus' in his book titled 'American Rules': 

As used here, Washington (the Military Industrial State) is less geographic expression than a set of interlocking institutions headed by people, who, whether acting officially or unofficially, are able to put a thumb on the helm of state. Washington (the Military Industrial State), in this sense, includes the upper echelons of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the federal government. It encompasses the principal components of the national security state — the Departments of Defense, State, and more recently, Homeland Security, along with various agencies comprising the intelligence and law enforcement communities. Its rank extends to select think tanks and interest groups. Lawyers, lobbyists, fixers, former officials, and retired military officers who still enjoy access are members in good standing. Yet Washington (the Military Industrial State) also reaches beyond the Washington ‘Beltway’ to include big banks and other financial institutions, defense contractors, and major corporations, and television networks . . . With rare exceptions, acceptance of the Washington (the Military Industrial State) rules forms a prerequisite for entry into this world.


Published Date: Aug 05, 2017 03:33 pm | Updated Date: Aug 05, 2017 03:37 pm



Also See