The recently declassified US State Department documents show that in September 1984, US President Ronald Reagan had warned Pakistan’s military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq that “it is likely that at some point India will take military action to pre-empt your nuclear program”.
The warning was part of the talking points conveyed by Ambassador Hinton, US Ambassador to Islamabad, to the Pakistani President while delivering Reagan’s letter expressing concern about Pakistan’s nuclear programme.
The “Talking Points for Use in Delivering Letter to General Zia”, a four-page undated secret document, and President Reagan’s letter to General Zia of 12 September 1984 — a three-page secret and sensitive document — were produced by a mandatory declassification review request by the US National Security Archive to the US State Department. The letter and the talking points had not been revealed or published before this week.
Reagan administration’s fears were based on a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) analysis about an Indian reaction to Pakistan’s nuclear programme.
The CIA’s “Monthly Warning and Forecast Meetings for July 1984” explicitly noted that “some parts of the Indian government apparently view a Pakistani nuclear threat as imminent and it is our view that a pre-emptive military strike by India is a near-term possibility.”
The top secret CIA analysis also noted that “an Indian attack on Pakistani nuclear facilities would almost certainly prompt retaliatory strikes against Indian nuclear facilities and probably lead to a full-scale war.”
The Americans were also worried that it “could have very little additional political or military warning of an attack on Pakistani facilities”.
In his letter to Zia-ul-Haq, Reagan asked for a commitment to limiting the nuclear enrichment to five per cent. A section of Reagan administration considered five per cent as the “red line”, a breach of which should trigger sanctions on Pakistan. But Reagan’s letter did not directly threaten to cut aid in the event of non-compliance to the five per cent limit.
In December 1982, President Reagan had warned General Zia that the US would cut all aid to Pakistan if it took certain definitive steps toward a nuclear capability, for example by assembling or testing a nuclear device. More warnings were given by the US in 1984.
In his confidential letter of November 7, 1984 to President Reagan, General Zia did not mention Reagan’s request to limit uranium enrichment to five per cent. Responding to the points raised by Reagan, Zia’s stance was one of outright denial: “Pakistan has no intention whatsoever to manufacture or explode a nuclear device.”
Zia went to add that Pakistan’s uranium enrichment facilities were only for “research and fuel technology purposes,” and were not meant to “produce highly enriched weapons grade uranium.”
The CIA’s Secret Intelligence Assessment of September 1985, had noted that Zia and the Pakistani public were deeply committed to a nuclear weapons capability as security against India. If Washington cut aid for non-proliferation reasons, CIA analysts argued, Zia would reduce support for the mujahideen resistance in Afghanistan.