Closing the global nuclear bazaar

Published : Feb 27, 2004 00:00 IST

An Army vehicle carrying the long-range surface-to-surface Ghauri missile passes a portrait of the nation's founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah during a military parade to mark Pakistan day in Islamabad on March 23, 1999. - MOHSIN ALI/REUTERS

An Army vehicle carrying the long-range surface-to-surface Ghauri missile passes a portrait of the nation's founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah during a military parade to mark Pakistan day in Islamabad on March 23, 1999. - MOHSIN ALI/REUTERS

Alarming disclosures about Pakistan's illicit sale of its atomic secrets should impel serious rethinking everywhere on relying on nuclear weapons for security and highlight the urgency of disarmament.

PAKISTAN' ruling establishment has embarked on a huge gamble - for the second time since the September 11 attack on the twin towers of the World Trade Centre. When the United States declared war on Al Qaeda, Islamabad suddenly executed a U-turn on its long-standing Afghanistan policy and joined the campaign against the Taliban, its old ally.

And now, the Pakistan government has seemingly turned against its key nuclear scientists and technologists and done a clandestine deal with the U.S. in order to cap a major crisis created by sensational revelations about its involvement in transfers of nuclear technology and components to North Korea, Iran and Libya. This tectonic shift is taking place at a time when Pakistani society has barely recovered from the effects of the first major turn.

The nuclear developments in Pakistan have the gravest of implications not just for the South Asian region but for the future of global security. The crisis, precipitated by continuing disclosures about clandestine nuclear commerce for over a year and Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan's public confession, has brought the U.S. straight into the region's centre stage, with a key role in "safeguarding" Pakistan's nuclear arsenal. According to officials quoted on NBC Television, American experts, constituting what is called the "U.S. Liaison Committee", have spent millions of dollars to "safeguard more than 40 weapons" in Pakistan's arsenal. They have been meeting Pakistani officials "every two months" to help them develop state-of-the-art security, including secret authorisation codes. The issue of preventing future nuclear transfers from Pakistan is unlikely to end with this. It confronts the world with a major challenge.

What Khan and his colleagues at the Khan Research Laboratories (KRL) in Kahuta accomplished was the erection of one of the most well-organised, complex and relatively successful networks in the world to smuggle nuclear weapons technology to other countries - perhaps the greatest instance of secret nuclear collaboration since the reported cooperation between Israel and apartheid South Africa in the 1970s to develop the Bomb. The network was huge and well-ramified across continents, with a factory making centrifuge components in Malaysia, with middlemen from Sri Lanka, Germany and Holland, with hardware shipments routed through Dubai, and meetings in places such as Istanbul in Turkey and Casablanca in Morocco, besides Islamabad, Pyongyang and Teheran.

Khan exploited to the hilt the contacts he had made in the 1970s and 1980s to source materials and components from suppliers in Western Europe and North America to manufacture uranium enrichment centrifuges. Khan's network was probably at the core of what International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei has termed "the Wal-Mart of private sector proliferation". According to ElBaradei, an international "nuclear blackmarket has emerged, driven by fantastic cleverness. Designers are drawn in one country, and there is no clarity about the end user... Nuclear businessmen, unscrupulous firms, and perhaps also state bodies are involved... ."

Investigations by the IAEA and Western intelligence experts, based on documents obtained from Iranian and Libyan governments as well as by dissident North Korean nuclear scientists suggest that the nuclear programmes of these countries used KRL's centrifuge designs based on what Khan allegedly pilfered in the 1970s from the Urenco enrichment plant in Holland, where he worked. The KRL impress is distinctly recognisable in many of these facilities.

The official Pakistan story is that Khan & Co., especially his close associates Mohammed Farooq and Yasin Chohan, conducted their nuclear smuggling as "individual scientists" driven by "personal greed", without official sanction. They exploited the exceptional freedom they enjoyed during the "clandestine phase" of the nuclear programme - until the tests of 1998.

There is indeed staggering evidence of corruption. Khan is known to own numerous properties at home and abroad, including a palatial house on the Rawal Lake worth Rs.12 crores. He is believed to have a major share in a hotel chain in Pakistan. Some other KRL personnel too operated overseas bank accounts through which millions of dollars were transferred.

The authorities collected a great deal of clinching evidence to this effect, and for good measure, got the suspects to sign statements confirming it while absolving the government of all responsibility. For instance, Khan's confession states: "There was never ever any kind of authorisation for these activities by the government ... I was confronted with the evidence and findings and I have voluntarily admitted that much of it is true and accurate."

However, the core of the official version is totally incredible. Dr. Khan's nuclear transfers could not have occurred without the consent of Pakistan's security agencies, controlled by the military, which closely guard its nuclear facilities and personnel.

It is well established that the Army has long had exclusive undivided control over the nuclear programme - to the point that it has probably not permitted a single civilian leader barring former President Ghulam Ishaq Khan, whom it trusted fully, to enter the Kahuta enrichment plant. Foreign diplomats are not welcome anywhere near the plant. Some years ago, the French Ambassador to Pakistan was manhandled when he as much as approached its periphery, diplomatic immunity notwithstanding.

There is no conceivable way in which Khan & Co., could have removed 2 to 3 metres tall centrifuges from Kahuta and loaded them on to trucks or airplanes without the military's consent. Pakistan Air Force planes such as the C-130 Hercules were used a number of times to lift missile components from North Korea. All this would have needed the government's approval.

The Pakistani military has clearly used corruption on the part of Khan and his colleagues to blackmail and bludgeon them into signing confessions. Khan too threatened to expose key Army figures involved in nuclear smuggling. Not only did he name two former Army Chiefs, Aslam Beg and Jehangir Karamat (who were interrogated), but also demanded the joint interrogation of several former Army commanders with KRL personnel: "No debriefing is complete unless you debrief us together." He also dropped hints through his friends that he would expose all concerned, including General Musharraf. He reportedly sent his daughter Dina to London with a tape detailing the involvement of top generals in nuclear smuggling.

This mutual blackmail eventually produced a deal, brokered by Senator and lawyer S.M. Zafar, under which Khan made a public confession, indicting himself but exonerating the Army. He would not be tried. He got clemency, but would remain under surveillance for life.

WHAT motivated the Pakistan government's decision to sell nuclear secrets to other states? It has been suggested that the ideology driving the "Islamic Bomb" project may have been the motive in the case of Iran and Libya. This does not stand to reason. Libya may be a Muslim majority country, but it is not "Islamic". Iran is predominantly Shia. But the Pakistani establishment is essentially Sunni. It could not have wanted to help Iran develop nuclear weapons. Besides, the first transfers to Iran reportedly took place in 1987, before the "Islamic Revolution" there. And some of the centrifuges Khan took there were of obsolete and discarded design!

By all indications, the most important transactions pertained to North Korea. These were driven largely by a security rationale (although corruption may have played a secondary role). Simply put, by the late 1980s Pakistan had a nuclear capacity, but no missiles. It "needed" these to "counter" India and procured Nodong and Taepodong from North Korea. It renamed them Ghauri-I and Ghauri-III. The nuclear weapons-missiles swap made perfect sense within the framework of cynical "security"-based realpolitik pursued by many states, including the U.S., Russia, Britain, China, France, Israel and India. In such matters, truth, legality and honesty count for little, as do transparency and democracy.

How true is Musharraf's claim that the nuclear transfers ceased in 2000, or at the latest when the National Command Authority (NCA) was set up in February 2002? Evidence from Libya and North Korea, reported in the media, suggests this is not the case - although it is possible that by this time, some key KRL personnel were batting as individuals with tacit support from the state.

We may not know the truth for a long time. The truth would have seen the light of day had Khan been put on trial, and a fair trial at that. Clearly, the Pakistani establishment had no stomach for this. That would have dragged the Army through this mud. Khan was decorated with the highest national awards, and revered as a "national hero". He could not be "victimised" beyond the "humiliation" of being interrogated. He was finally let off - to save the Army's skin. Some other KRL personnel may be put on trial. (Some have been arrested under the tough Security of Pakistan Act.) But that trial is unlikely to be open and fair. Too much is at stake from the military's point of view - "strategic assets" of the highest value.

One part of this upholding drama is an elaborate charade being enacted by the Pakistan government, and by Washington and New Delhi. All these actors are driven by purely short-term calculations of their "national interest". For many weeks, the Indian government refused to comment on the nuclear smuggling issue. When External Affairs Minister Yashwant Sinha broke this silence on February 5, he made the most cautious, low-key reference possible. Evidently, New Delhi does not want to upset the dialogue process with Pakistan. Nor does it want too much international attention focussed on South Asia's nuclear weapons: the world usually clubs the two states together on nuclear matters.

The U.S. has rushed to declare that it completely accepts Musharraf's line that the clandestine commerce belongs to the past; nothing has been going on in recent years; and Pakistan is a responsible state. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell apparently places full confidence in Musharraf's "400 per cent assurance" that the sordid episode has ended. His latest statement is: "Well, the biggest is now gone, so I think that is a remarkable success." Powell endorsed Musharraf's decision to pardon Khan. It is "something that he felt it was appropriate for him to do and he has explained his position thoroughly".

However, Khan has confessed to a serious offence: proliferation of nuclear weapons technology. This is enough to activate the U.S. Non-Proliferation Act and scupper the $3 billion aid to Pakistan. But Washington chooses to ignore this. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage says Musharraf "is the right man in Pakistan at the right time" - meaning the U.S. needs him desperately as an ally in its war on Al Qaeda and more.

States, especially those led by cynical and myopic "national security"-based realpolitik, can be expected to ignore the long-term implications of the nuclear blackmarket revelations. Even The New York Times treats Khan with kid gloves. It editorialises: "Punishing or pardoning Khan is not as important as ending these sales and the production of fissile material ... destroying the network, and making sure that the senior officers involved are removed from power" - as if the two issues were entirely unconnected.

However, there is no reason why global civil society and U.S. citizens should be indulgent towards Khan's grave proliferation activities. This is not an internal matter of Pakistan. Mass-destruction weapons concern humanity at large. There must be a full investigation and disclosures, including lists of nuclear suppliers.

WE in India must not gloat over Pakistan's predicament. Having a nuclear proliferation-prone state on our borders does not enhance our security. This calls into question the wisdom of India's own nuclear policy. It bears recalling that Pakistan's nuclear programme has been largely reactive. Indian leaders should have understood the extremely high risks of goading Pakistan to develop its nuclear programme. Instead, in May 1998, they teased, taunted and coaxed Pakistan into crossing the threshold. Both states have become more insecure after 1998. The nuclear hawks' romantic prediction that the two would behave more responsibly and soberly after gaining a nuclear status has proved disastrously wrong.

Nor should we claim a Simon-Pure and wholly indigenous status for the Indian nuclear programme. Civilian nuclear technology and materials are widely traded all over the world, and they can be diverted to military uses. India has bought or borrowed nuclear materials from sources as diverse as the U.K., U.S., USSR/Russia, Norway, France, China and Canada. Without their help in design and construction, and straightforward commercial sales, India could not have built its nuclear programme.

The plutonium used in India's 1974 test came from spent fuel of CIRUS, a reactor built with Canadian and U.S. help. India violated its promise to use CIRUS solely for "peaceful" purposes. So it hypocritically called the 1974 test a "peaceful nuclear explosion". This too was a form of cheating. Admittedly, there are differences between India and Pakistan. India is technologically more advanced, and some key KRL personnel were criminals. The Pakistani nuclear programme has always been personality and individual, rather than institutionally dominated, with a high likelihood of wayward behaviour. That waywardness is now in full evidence.

The world now stands warned. So long as there are nuclear weapons, and they remain a currency of power, the danger of their proliferation will persist. There is no alternative to the complete abolition of these evil instruments of mass destruction.

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