Nuclear home truths

Published : Feb 27, 2004 00:00 IST

The Pakistani establishment seeks to absolve itself of all blame by getting the country's top scientist, Abdul Qadeer Khan, to confess to the unauthorised transfer of nuclear technology.

in Islamabad

THERE was paranoia in Pakistan last fortnight, less than six years after it gatecrashed into the nuclear club with great pride and joy. It reached a peak as investigations into the scandal about the transfer of nuclear technology suggested the involvement of Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, the "father of Pakistan's nuclear bomb".

The speed with which events unfolded left people dumb-founded. A shocked nation watched in disbelief as the country's most revered personality sought pardon for the unauthorised transfer of nuclear technology to other countries. "There was never ever any kind of authorisation for these activities (proliferation) by the government, I take full responsibility for my actions and seek your pardon," Khan said, absolving the military and the state of any complicity in what is undoubtedly the worst crisis to hit the country after the separation of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) in 1971.

These were powerful words, coming as they did from a national hero credited with making the first "Islamic bomb" and delivering Pakistan from the fear of an "evil India". But despite the dramatic confessions, the mercy petition and the generosity of Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf, who accepted the recommendation of Prime Minister Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali and his Cabinet to let off Khan in the light of the services that he has rendered the nation, an impression has gained ground that the scientist was made a scapegoat.

And there are good reasons to believe so. Since its inception, Pakistan's nuclear programme has been directly under Army supervision. The country's multi-tiered security system was headed by a lieutenant-general (currently two), with all nuclear installations and personnel kept under the tightest possible surveillance. Was it possible for Khan to bypass the security rings? Was it possible for him to supply or sell secrets to three different countries without the knowledge, if not connivance, of the top brass?

The remark of the chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Mohamed El-Baradei, that the information on Khan was just the "tip of the iceberg" and that the Pakistani nuclear scientist was not alone in spreading nuclear technology, has sent the Pakistani establishment into a tizzy. Recently, in Davos, Musharraf himself had spoken of the existence of an international nuclear mafia and had hinted at stringent action against the culprits. But the manner in which the Pakistani establishment handled the investigation and its apparent anxiety to close the file at the earliest have strengthened suspicions about why the Musharraf regime pardoned the scientist. The perception that Khan was a victim of machinations at higher levels would remain as long as the role of the military in the scandal is not clarified.

The manner in which Khan appeared on state television to read out a prepared statement taking the entire onus for the transfer of nuclear technology on to himself has triggered angry reactions among political parties and representatives of civil society. Musharraf defended the action, terming it as a "minimum requirement" to satisfy the international community and the people of Pakistan.

A cursory look at the text of Khan's statement makes it clear that it was scripted elsewhere. The statement said: "I have much to answer for. The investigations have established that many of the reported activities did occur and these were inevitably initiated at my behest. I was confronted with the evidence and findings and I have voluntarily admitted that much of it is true and accurate. I have chosen to appear before you to offer my deepest regrets and unqualified apologies to a traumatised nation."

The scientist said that he accepted full responsibility for the nuclear transfers, which were carried out "in good faith but on errors of judgment related to unauthorised proliferation activities".

The investigation into the nuclear scandal was prompted by information from Iran, which was forwarded to Pakistan via the IAEA in November. When inspections of Iran's nuclear facilities by the IAEA revealed centrifuges and traces of highly enriched uranium, Iran said that Pakistan was the source.

When the IAEA sent a report on the involvement of some of Pakistan's scientists and officials in the transfer of nuclear technology, initially Islamabad denied any involvement. Even after two months into the probe, Islamabad insisted that it was a routine debriefing exercise for its nuclear scientists.

In fact, a day before Khan met Musharraf for over 90 minutes and decided to make a televised confession, five of the scientist's colleagues and officials from the A.Q. Khan Research Laboratories (KRL), Kahuta were detained for a three-month period. "I wish to place on record that those of my subordinates who have accepted their role in the affair were acting in good faith like me on my instructions," he said.

Successive governments and the military, it appears, had turned a blind eye to the issue of proliferation until it figured high on the agenda of the West. Said Pervez Hoodbhoy, Professor of Nuclear Physics, Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad: "With unlimited government resources at his disposal, and free of auditing restrictions, Khan, a metallurgist who is often wrongly referred to as a nuclear scientist, managed to purchase restricted items, which companies in Europe and the United States were willing to sell for the right price, no questions asked. In the process, Khan became a wealthy man."

According to Prof. Hoodbhoy, over the years Khan and his collaborators published several papers on ways and means to enable centrifuge rotors to spin at supersonic speeds without disintegrating - a condition essential for the manufacturing of bomb-grade uranium. KRL issued glossy brochures that were aimed at classified organisations but could be easily obtained on its website. "But Khan's nuclear bravado was of little concern to any of Pakistan's governments, civil or military," Prof. Hoodbhoy pointed out.

Since the inception of the nuclear programme, the Pakistani establishment had sought to turn its successes into larger gains, he said. First, it wanted, and gained, the support of hundreds of millions of Muslims the world over by showcasing its nuclear success as an achievement of the Islamic world. This enabled Pakistan to enjoy considerable financial and political benefits from oil-rich Arab countries. Among others, Libya reportedly bankrolled Pakistan and may even have supplied it with raw uranium.

After Pakistan's nuclear tests six years ago, the Saudi government gifted it oil supplies worth $4 billion for a period of five years in order to help it tide over international sanctions. "The transfers to North Korea are more prosaic. Having developed the bomb, Pakistan needed missiles to deliver them. North Korea was willing to supply them, for a price. Like the Dutch centrifuges, all Kahuta had to do was put them together and stick a star and crescent on them," Prof. Hoodbhoy said.

For all the popularity that Khan enjoys, it was not possible for him to take on Musharraf. International opinion was overwhelmingly ranged against him and perhaps there were too many skeletons waiting to tumble out. He could have dragged the military into the mud but it would have been a perilously lone battle.

The Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), an alliance of six religious parties, was vociferous in its support for the national icon. But it is seen as the political arm of the military and the compromises that it made with Musharraf recently on a host of issues have only reinforced the perception. Despite the rhetoric, none of the mainstream parties is willing to displease Washington.

There is a growing view in Pakistan that Musharraf is doing the U.S.' bidding, particularly since 9/11. As one commentator put it: "Allegorically speaking, Musharraf has dealt as symbolic a blow to Qadeer's aura and stature as the American `conquerors' of Iraq did last year to Saddam Hussein's by dismantling his bronze statue in Baghdad's Firdousi Square."

There is little doubt that the coming weeks and months could prove stormy for Musharraf and the Army, given the growing impatience among the religious fundamentalists and the hardliners who see him as squandering all the gains made by the Islamists over the past two decades.

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