Special Forces Co-operation as a Nuclear Non-proliferation Measure?

26 May

In my continued attempt to make use of those snippets from the archives that didn’t make it into the finished thesis, here’s something you might not think about as a non-proliferation measure: the Special Air Service (SAS).

Previously, I’ve talked about angry letters from A. Q. Khan and the intersections between Barry Goldwater, the military-industrial complex, and the Ford administration. This time, it’s back to the UK and a non-proliferation ‘bribe’ that never went anywhere other than the Foreign Office filing cabinet marked ‘Daft Ideas.’

During the 1970s, the United States and the United Kingdom wrestled with the idea of selling advanced combat aircraft to Pakistan in order to move Bhutto and then Zia away from the nuclear path. The US was always more committed to this form of bribery, although that commitment waxed and waned according to the administration in power, the Congressional climate, and a variety of other conflicting factors.

For the UK, supplying combat aircraft to Pakistan was never a serious prospect and existed more as a way of justifying the sale of the Jaguar strike aircraft to India, a sale that was causing no little damage to non-proliferation efforts on the sub-continent. The damage was caused by the perception – if not the reality – that Britain was willing to sell a nuclear-capable strike aircraft to the nation that caused Islamabad the most concern.

During 1978 – and parallel to the Jaguars-for-India debate – there were other discussions on-going regarding other ways to reassure the Pakistanis about their security situation and hence lessen the chances of them pursuing nuclear capability. One that was briefly debated by British diplomats but was disregarded by senior figures such as Foreign Secretary David Owen was the potential dispatch of SAS troops to Pakistan to serve as “advisors” on counter-terrorism and Afghan-Pakistani cross-border incursion issues.

Such a force would, it was suggested, “impress a soldier like Zia” and form part of a wider “helpful and friendly” attitude towards Pakistan.[1] Such a simplistic, condescending proposal never gained traction, mainly due to concerns over on-the-ground military cooperation with regimes – such as Pakistan – with questionable human rights records.[2]

The justification for not sending the SAS to Pakistan is interesting: human rights. Human rights were a major focus of the Carter administration and, while Whitehall was mired in a spat with Washington and Islamabad over the Indian Jaguar contract, using this as an ‘out’ provided a handy justification and implied that the UK supported Carter’s stance.

Yet, the initial reasons suggested for dispatching special forces to Pakistan are bound up in a range of problematic attitudes. Foremost amongst these is the notion that sending in a few elite military personal would impress Zia. While the SAS are undoubtedly an impressive fighting force, the somewhat paternalistic attitude towards Zia smacks of long-held notions regarding the primitiveness and violence of developing world peoples.

The binning of the SAS plan at a very early stage is perhaps unsurprising. But it does provide an interesting glimpse into the many and varied ways in politicians and civil servants attempted to wrangle some form of non-proliferation success out of the mire that was the triangular US-UK-Pakistan relationship.


[1] UK Embassy Islamabad to FCO, ‘French Nuclear Reprocessing Plant’, July 17, 1978, The UK National Archives (hereafter TNA), Foreign and Commonwealth Office files (hereafter FCO) 96/823; ‘Pakistan: French Nuclear Reprocessing Plant’, July 27 1978, TNA FCO 96/823, 2; ‘Pakistan: French Nuclear Reprocessing Plant’, July 20, 1978, TNA FCO 96/823; ‘Pakistan: French Nuclear Reprocessing Plant’, July 25, 1978, TNA FCO 96/823

[2] Judd to Owen, ‘Pakistan: French Nuclear Reprocessing Plant’, July 1978 (exact date unknown), TNA FCO 96/823, 1

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