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Intrigue Deepens Over Pakistan's "Pardon" Of Atomic Expert

by Praful Bidwai

to series on the new nuclear club

(IPS) NEW DELHI -- President Gen. Pervez Musharraf has pardoned the 'Father of the Pakistani Bomb,' Abdul Qadeer Khan, who over the weekend "confessed" to the clandestine transfer of nuclear weapons technology and components from Pakistan to North Korea, Iran and Libya.

The pardon on Thursday could block a trial that may have uncovered revelations about government and military involvement.

Musharraf's government clearly seems to be moving toward putting on trial some of the individuals allegedly involved in the case.

This is the signal that Islamabad is sending after the latest official disclosures about the detailed confession signed by Khan and the arrest of four of his colleagues.

Khan has tried to turn the tables on his interrogators by alleging that top generals, including Musharraf, knew of and were party to the transfers. He is also believed to have sent his daughter abroad with a tape naming names of his military accomplices.

On Saturday, Khan was sacked as scientific adviser to the government. Since then, more indications have emerged of the government's actions from a two-and-a half hour presentation made at a special briefing on Sunday for journalists. Specific illicit activities on the part of personnel of Khan Research Laboratories (KRL) were detailed at that briefing.

These point to one of the most complex, elaborate and successful operations to transfer nuclear weapons technology, undertaken anywhere since the World War II Manhattan Project in the U.S, which invented the nuclear weapons dropped on Japan, killing tens of thousands of civilians and abruptly ending the war.

Going by the damning indictment of Dr. Khan that emerged from the official briefing, the metallurgist would be guilty of serious proliferation-related offences and of selling Pakistan's nuclear secrets.

According to military sources, quoted in the media, trying Khan is a "sensitive" issue, on which no decision has yet been taken.

Khan's interrogation has been described as the "humiliation" of a "national hero" by the religious far right. Many Pakistanis have been led to believe Khan "saved Pakistan" from India by making the Bomb.

Musharraf's government thus finds itself in a dilemma. On the one hand, it is under enormous pressure from the United States to punish those responsible for the illicit nuclear trade. On the other, a fair trial could produce embarrassing disclosures about the role of the military in the operation.

As this mutual sparring between Khan and the government -- or blackmail, depending on how one sees it -- continues, the major actors are playing out roles designed not to rock the boat.

The government claims that it was at no stage involved in, or aware of, the illicit activities of Khan and his colleagues. It attributes them solely to the "personal greed" of "individual scientists" lacking official sanction. There are serious doubts about this assertion.

CIA director George Tenet said Thursday that Khan's transfer of nuclear technology "was shaving years" off the time some countries needed to develop nuclear weapons.

"His network is now answering to the world for years of nuclear profiteering," Tenet said.

Washington intelligence agencies have long known the Pakistan government was implicated in the clandestine commerce, but Musharraf is a far too valuable ally at the moment to be compromised. It needs him both for its Afghanistan operation and as a potential leader of a moderate Islamic state at a strategic location. Washington is driven more by its short-term tactical needs than the truth.

The third player, India, has maintained uncharacteristic silence on the new disclosures. An Indian foreign ministry spokesman told IPS that no statement is due: "There is nothing in the pipeline." A year ago, by contrast, New Delhi impounded a North Korean ship on suspicion that it was carrying illicit nuclear and missile cargo.

All three players have their own priorities and compulsions. Pakistan is keen to preserve its nuclear programme and its army's political supremacy -- at any cost. It is willing to sacrifice some nuclear scientists by branding them culprits in the covert technology trade.

New Delhi is keen not to upset the peace process launched in January after years of conflict with Pakistan. Privately, many Indian diplomats, like strategic analysts, gloat over Pakistan's predicament. But they will not go public.

They are aware that underscoring Pakistan's culpability in matters nuclear could show India too in an uncomplimentary light: the world tends to equate India and Pakistan in respect of nuclear weapons and Kashmir. A Security Council resolution (No. 1172 of 1998) brackets the two while condemning their tests. Like Pakistan, India does not want world attention focused on its nuclear weapons.

However, it is abundantly clear that 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.

The army has exclusive, unambiguous control over Pakistan's nuclear program. No civilian leader has probably been allowed to enter facilities like the Kahuta enrichment plant, barring Ghulam Ishaq Khan, a former president trusted by the army. Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto has complained that she could never enter Kahuta.

Khan & Co could not have removed whole centrifuges from Kahuta and put them into airplanes without the military's consent.

Similarly, Pakistan reportedly used C-130 aircraft to lift missile components from North Korea. In August 2002, one such plane was photographed by a satellite. All this would have needed the government's approval.

Unlike the transfers of centrifuge designs to Iran and Libya, the deals with North Korea seem like straightforward official barters. By the late 1980s, Pakistan had nuclear capability, but no missiles. To 'counter' India, it procured Nodong and Taepodong missiles from North Korea. Personal corruption would seem to have been marginal in this transaction.

The ramifications of the clandestine network cut across continents, with a factory making centrifuge components in Malaysia run by a Sri Lankan, middlemen from Germany and Holland, and hardware shipments routed through Dubai. Khan held meetings in Istanbul in Turkey and Casablanca in Morocco, and chartered aircraft to different destinations.

Khan's reported confessions will reinforce International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) chief Mohamed El Baradei's assessment, following disclosures by Libya and Iran to the Agency, that "international export controls have completely failed in recent years. A nuclear black market has emerged, driven by fantastic cleverness ... Nuclear businessmen, unscrupulous firms and perhaps also state bodies are involved. Libya and Iran made extensive use of this network."

Khan was allegedly part of a gigantic illicit operation centred on the proliferation of mass-destruction weapons technology. The least this revelation demands is that the U.S government and Pakistan publish the list of clandestine suppliers and middlemen in different countries so that they can be prosecuted.

Equally important are legal prohibitions on trade in nuclear materials. The existing IAEA framework is far too loose.

Huge quantities of weapons-grade fissile material routinely pass through civilian nuclear facilities the world over. Plutonium, only five kilogrammes of which is enough to make a Nagasaki-type bomb, is traded in amounts such as tens of tonnes. There are large quantities of MUF (material unaccounted-for) in the world's reprocessing facilities.

Above all, the world needs to devalue nuclear weapons as a currency of power. It must get down to negotiating their complete elimination. Unless the most powerful states summon up the will to disarm, they will not be able to stop proliferation by smaller nations.

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Albion Monitor February 7, 2004 (

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