President Biden calls Pakistan ‘one of the most dangerous’ nuclear states

Former Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan calls the US president’s statement a failure of Pakistan's foreign policy

Pakistan's national flag flatters during a ceremony to celebrate Pakistan's 75th Independence Day, at the Mausoleum of Muhammad Ali Jinnah in Karachi, Pakistan, August 14, 2022. (photo credit: REUTERS/AKHTAR SOOMRO)
Pakistan's national flag flatters during a ceremony to celebrate Pakistan's 75th Independence Day, at the Mausoleum of Muhammad Ali Jinnah in Karachi, Pakistan, August 14, 2022.
(photo credit: REUTERS/AKHTAR SOOMRO)

[Islamabad] -- Pakistan strongly rejected US President Joe Biden’s remarks characterizing the Islamic state as possibly “one of the most dangerous countries in the world,” because it has nuclear weapons “without any cohesion.”

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Pakistan’s Acting Foreign Secretary Jauhar Saleem summoned US Ambassador Donald Blome on Saturday to deliver a strong demarche refuting President Biden’s allegations. “Pakistan’s disappointment and concern were conveyed to the US envoy on the unwarranted remarks, which were not based on ground reality or facts,” he said, according to a statement issued by Pakistan’s Foreign Office.

Saleem stressed that “Pakistan is a responsible nuclear state and its impeccable stewardship of the nuclear program, adherence to global standards, and an international best practice were well acknowledged by the International Atomic Energy Agency.”

“Pakistan is a responsible nuclear state and its impeccable stewardship of the nuclear program, adherence to global standards, and an international best practice were well acknowledged by the International Atomic Energy Agency.”

Pakistani Acting Foreign Secretary Jauhar Saleem

“It is essential to maintain the positive trajectory of Pakistan-US relations and the close cooperation between the two sides to build regional and global peace,” he added.

President Biden’s comments at a Democratic congressional campaign committee reception in California on October 13 came just days after Pakistan‘s Chief of the Army Staff Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa visited the US, where he met with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and other top officials.

Democratic 2020 US presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden reacts during a televised townhall on CNN dedicated to LGBTQ issues in Los Angeles, California, US October 10, 2019.  (credit: REUTERS/MIKE BLAKE)Democratic 2020 US presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden reacts during a televised townhall on CNN dedicated to LGBTQ issues in Los Angeles, California, US October 10, 2019. (credit: REUTERS/MIKE BLAKE)

Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif said in a statement on Saturday that “Pakistan rejects the remarks by the US president, which are factually incorrect and misleading. Over the past decades, Pakistan has proven to be the most responsible nuclear state, wherein its nuclear program is managed through a technically sound and foolproof command and control system.

He added: “Pakistan and the US have a long history of a friendly and mutually beneficial relationship and it is imperative that the ties remain unhindered.”

Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari called President Biden’s statement “surprising” but declared “Pakistan is committed to the survival of its integrity.” He attributed President Biden’s remarks to a “misunderstanding” stemming from “a lack of engagement between Islamabad and Washington.”

Former prime minister Imran Khan, who was ousted in April in a no-confidence vote, held the existing coalition government responsible for the controversial statement by the US president, terming it a failure of the "imported" government’s foreign policy.

In a series of tweets, Khan asked “On the basis of what information has Biden reached this unwarranted conclusion on our nuclear capability when, having been prime minister, I know we have one of the most secure nuclear command and control systems in the world? Unlike the US, which has been involved in wars across the world, when has Pakistan shown aggression, especially after nuclearization.”  

“On the basis of what information has Biden reached this unwarranted conclusion on our nuclear capability when, having been prime minister, I know we have one of the most secure nuclear command and control systems in the world? Unlike the US, which has been involved in wars across the world, when has Pakistan shown aggression, especially after nuclearization.”

Imran Khan

Khan claims the US was behind the regime change operation that ousted his government.

The US State Department clarified President Biden’s remarks. 

“The United States is confident of Pakistan’s commitment and its ability to secure its nuclear asset,” the State Department’s principal deputy spokesman, Vedant Patel, said on Monday during a briefing with reporters, in response to a question.  “The US has always viewed a secure and prosperous Pakistan as critical to US interests. And more broadly, the US values our longstanding cooperation with Pakistan,” he also said. 

Is Pakistan the most responsible nuclear country?

The Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), a Washington-based nuclear watchdog, assesses countries’ progress on nuclear security, highlights security gaps, and recommends actions to better protect nuclear materials and facilities, and to build an effective global nuclear security architecture.

According to the NTI 2020 index, “Pakistan was the most improved country in the theft ranking of the countries with nuclear materials, improving its overall score by 7 points.”

NTI also reported that “Pakistan has made major progress over the past years in improving security for its weapons-grade nuclear materials. Pakistan’s increase of +25 is the second-largest improvement of any country since the index first launched in 2012.”

In March 2022, at the request of the government of Pakistan, the Integrated Regulatory Review Service (IRRS), a subsidiary mission of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), paid a week-long visit to Pakistan. The mission concluded that “new and updated nuclear safety regulations in Pakistan have significantly updated and strengthened nuclear and radiation safety in the country.”

The IAEA also said that Pakistan’s nuclear regulatory body is “effective” and encourages continued focus on radioactive waste management.

Pakistan launched its nuclear program in 1972 under then-president and soon-to-be prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Meanwhile, India had started its nuclear program in 1967 and tested its first weapon in 1974, providing an increased incentive for Pakistan’s program. Both countries publicly demonstrated their nuclear capabilities with a round of tit-for-tat tests in May 1998. Neither country has signed the international nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The Strategic Plans Division Force (SPD) is the custodian of Pakistan’s nuclear assets. Commanded by a three-star general, its estimated 25,000 highly trained and well-equipped troops are responsible for the protection of the country’s strategic nuclear and tactical assets.

The Strategic Plans Division serves under the secretariat of the National Command Authority, the supreme decision-making body chaired by the prime minister.

The National Command Authority oversees nuclear research and development organizations and the military’s strategic forces are responsible for the security, deployment and maintenance of their respective nuclear assets.

Ambassador Tasnim Aslam, who served as the head of Pakistan’s missions in Italy and Morocco, told The Media Line that President Biden’s remarks are unfounded. “The context and basis for such wild comments have not been explained,” she said.

“The reference to lack of cohesion seems to be the economic fragility and political unrest in Pakistan, for which the US administration is largely responsible. In any case, I am not surprised by what Joe Biden has said. Biden represents a country that destroyed Iraq on the basis of a lie perpetuated by the US and British governments” that said that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, she explained. 

Aslam accused the US of remaining “hypocritically silent on the repeated incidents of uranium sale and smuggling in India and an Indian missile landing in Pakistan by mistake during ‘regular maintenance.’”

She suggested that “Biden needs to be briefed by his advisers on the well-documented safety and security record of Pakistan's nuclear facilities as testified to by the IAEA and NTI as well.”

Adeeb Ul Zaman Safvi, a retired Pakistan Navy captain, war veteran and US Naval War College graduate, is a Karachi-based defense analyst. Recalling the famous Kissinger quote – "To be an enemy of the US is dangerous, but to be a friend is fatal,” Safvi told The Media Line: “Undoubtedly Pakistan is a real example of his saying; it has been the real victim of US friendship.”

Safvi claimed that “Pakistan’s nuclear program has been a US target since its inception. In the past, all US tactics to roll back Pakistan's nuclear program had failed and Biden’s comments suggest that the US administration is working on a new strategy to denuclearize Pakistan.”  

Safvi asserts that such a statement by the president of the United States (POTUS) “at this juncture signifies that the US has failed to consolidate its regime change operation in Pakistan, hence would further promote political mayhem to destabilize the security of the state.”

He acknowledged Pakistan’s lack of political stability and stressed the importance of President Biden’s remarks. “Of course, there is a lack of cohesion in the political arena as the decision-makers are pursuing their vested interests, creating political uncertainty,” he admitted, adding, “nonetheless, POTUS’s remarks cannot and should not be set aside as casual talk over a cup of tea.”

Professor Adrian Calamel, a New York-based expert on the Middle East and global security, told The Media Line, that President Biden’s comments are a result of mixed messaging. 

“It would appear the Biden administration doesn’t have a consistent policy about Pakistan. Since Khan left government, America has sent Pakistan mixed messaging. With Khan and his anti-American rhetoric gone, the administration should try to find common ground to build bridges,” he said.

Calamel emphasized that “Biden (made) a careless statement which only helps the anti-Western Khan camp. The US administration should be more concerned about the nuclear threats from Moscow and the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

Irina Tsukerman, a New York-based national security analyst, disagrees with the experts. She told The Media Line that “the Pakistani establishment and experts are deliberately choosing to interpret President Biden's comments narrowly, as if he was referencing the technical safeguards concerning the nuclear program itself.”

However, Tsukerman insisted, President Biden “was not referring to these issues, but rather to the overall situation in the country, which includes many internal political scuffles, such as what led to the frequent changes in prime ministers – most recently Imran Khan, the influence on the political parties by different foreign and domestic elements, the influence of the powerful military and civil establishments, and the extremist movements among the population, which the government is not able to control.”

Tsukerman noted that “Biden’s biggest concern is about these extremists gaining sway in political circles. In unstable political situations, extremists gaining access to nuclear weapons is the worst nightmare for the region and the United States.”

“Simple reassurances that the program is in good hands will not convince the US administration,” she warned, noting there are numerous religious schools that promote violence and intolerance that have not been shuttered by the government. 

“It is this general perception that is contributing to the concern over the safety of nuclear weapons in Pakistan,” she concluded.