A state in denial

Published : Feb 11, 2005 00:00 IST

The unravelling of the A.Q. Khan nuclear blackmarket continues to haunt the Pakistani establishment despite its attempts to distance itself from the scandal.

in Islamabad

ALTHOUGH it is a year since the "father of Pakistan's nuclear bomb", Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, confessed on state-run television his complicity in the illegal transfer of nuclear technology to Libya, North Korea and Iran, the scandal, considered the biggest in the history of nuclear proliferation, continues to haunt the General Pervez Musharraf regime.

Despite the government's attempts to absolve itself of the charges of proliferation, most analysts remain unconvinced that A.Q. Khan and his associates could have engaged in the clandestine operations over nearly two decades without the sanction of or tacit acknowledgement from sections or individuals within the Pakistani establishment.

The problem for the establishment is not what the analysts think on the controversy but the refusal of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to give up the chase to get to the bottom of the network and to unearth the extent of proliferation it caused. What is worse, with the Bush administration gearing up to zero in on neighbouring Iran on the pretext of its "clandestine nuclear programme", Pakistan has every reason to be panicky.

The government conceded in early 2004 that its nuclear scientists and entities transferred nuclear weapons-related technologies, equipment and knowhow to Iran, North Korea and Libya. The Pakistani government's earlier denials collapsed after Libya formally decided to terminate its clandestine weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programme in October 2003 and make a full disclosure of its efforts to build nuclear weapons; and after Iran, in 2003, agreed to cooperate with the IAEA and provide details of its clandestine uranium enrichment programmes.

The Iranian and Libyan revelations exposed a vast black market in clandestine nuclear trade comprising middlemen and shell companies; clandestine procurement techniques; false end-user certifications; and transfer of blueprints from one country, manufacture in another, transhipment to a third, before delivery to its final destination. The investigations of the Iranian and Libyan centrifuge-based uranium enrichment efforts have exposed the central role of A.Q. Khan in the clandestine trade.

Western media reports published detailed information about transfers of technical drawings, design specifications, components, complete assemblies of Pakistan's P-1 and P-2 centrifuge models, including the blueprint of an actual nuclear warhead from Pakistan's Khan Research Laboratories (KRL). But the transfer of hardware apart, there is equally damning evidence that Khan and his top associates imparted sensitive knowledge and knowhow in secret technical briefings for Iranian, North Korean and Libyan scientists in Pakistan and abroad.

These reports suggest that KRL's and Khan's first client was Iran (or possibly China even earlier); but the list gradually expanded to include North Korea and Libya. Starting in the late 1980s, Khan and some of his top associates began offering a one-stop shop for countries that wished to acquire nuclear technologies for a weapons programme.

A.Q. Khan, who is under house detention, gave a clean chit to the Pakistan military and governments past and present vis-a-vis the scandal, but there are simply no takers for the version. The military's tight control over the nuclear weapons programme, the multiple layers of security surrounding it, the exports of machinery and hardware from Pakistan, and rumours, leaks and past warnings about Pakistan's nuclear cooperation with Iran and North Korea by Western intelligence agencies have led analysts to believe that the current effort to pin the blame on a small number of senior officials from KRL is a cynical ploy to protect the military and the state from being implicated in the unfolding scandal.

Barring a few titbits in the print media, there is hardly any information about how the government's "internal probe" on the scandal is progressing.

In January, the English daily The News carried a report that Pakistan had barred over a dozen scientists and staff of KRL, who were under investigation, from travelling outside Islamabad without permission.

It said the order also included not meeting or exchanging any information with foreigners. The "suspects" have been asked to remain prepared for appearing before the investigation team. Asked whether these restrictions were part of the probe into the A.Q. Khan scandal, Interior Secretary Tariq Mahmood said: "The investigation into the Dr. A.Q. Khan issue is a long, legal procedure and an ongoing affair."

According to Musharraf and others in the government, the A.Q. Khan affair is merely about a greedy individual engaged in clandestine proliferation activity with the global underground network. The President has affirmed that his country's nuclear programme is under safe control and there has been no proliferation since the command and control was put in place in early 2000.

The nature of the crisis faced by the Musharraf regime is evident from some of the comments made in an investigative report in the English monthly, The Herald. Quoting unnamed sources, the magazine said: "It is becoming increasingly clear that the proliferation scandal is going to end up as a greater blackmailing tool against the military establishment than the nursery of militant Islamists that caused the 9/11 attacks."

According to the magazine, Islamabad watchers in Karachi are particularly apprehensive about the prospect of Pakistan becoming a tool in the hands of the Americans against Iran. It quoted Information and Broadcasting Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed denying any explicit international pressure on the nuclear issue. At the same time the Minister admitted that Iran's position can be a source of trouble for Pakistan over the next 10 to 12 months.

The report said that in return for the "soft approach" of the United States on the Khan episode, Pakistan launched a "full-blown military operation" against Al Qaeda and Taliban elements hiding in the tribal belt neighbouring Afghanistan and effected a "decisive cut" in infiltration across the Line of Control (LoC) into India.

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