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Pakistan's Nukes-For-Sale Saga Is Far From Over

by M B Naqvi

to series on the new nuclear club

(IPS) KARACHI -- Questions are still being asked about Pakistan's nuclear hero, Abdul Qadeer Khan, whose sale of advanced weapons technology was pardoned by Pakistan President Gen. Pervez Musharraf this week.

Dr Khan's transgressions are virtually the world's first major case of the wanton spreading of the deadly knowledge and technology of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Before this, the technology had been restricted to eight states: the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France, Israel, India and Pakistan.

Khan is said to have sold for money the knowledge and technology of making nuclear weapons of mass destruction to Iran, Libya and North Korea.

Khan, who confessed to leaking nuclear secrets Feb. 4 and was pardoned the next day, admitted to having been linked with an international underworld that buys and sells nuclear knowhow and technology for profit, even if he was not its head.

The charge of weapons proliferation is apparently not a crime under Pakistan's statutes, except perhaps the Official Secrets Act of 1923.

But Khan could face criminal charges over the theft of state and government property, as what was developed at Khan Research Laboratories at Kahuta belonged to the Pakistan state. There is also a breach of implicit trust in the actions, for which presidential pardon has been given. Musharraf has allowed him to go scot-free.

Few foreigners find Khan's story credible: a few rogue scientists and security personnel, on their own and for personal gain, stole the nuclear know-how and technology and sold them to the underworld -- and no government or official was involved at any stage.

The United States and other powers, keen on stopping the proliferation of atomic weapons of mass destruction, will not be amused. Here is a proven case of a huge-scale pilferage and buying and selling of what was the most sought-after knowledge and equipment by what Washington calls rogue states.

Had Iran and Libya not succumbed to U.S. and UN pressures on nuclear issues in recent months, Washington promised terrible consequences.

One area of trouble remains unaccounted for, namely North Korea, which says it has eight nuclear weapons, thanks mainly to A Q Khan's activities and whose arsenal is a major security fear for Asia.

At least one part of the story is undebatable: there was absolutely no financial control over Khan's decisions because he could go anywhere he liked, whenever he chose to and could spend virtually any amount, including in precious hard currency. As Musharraf has emphasized, security at KRL was under Khan and there was no command or control authority over him. The auditor general was bypassed.

Assuming that all of this is so, governments like the United States have to cope with the closure of the case.

But two other questions beg to be asked. First, was any nuclear equipment sold to Pyongyang? If so, when? Second, how could the Pakistan Army not have known what was going on right under its nose?

The Army runs a tight ship -- its grip on all aspects of life in Pakistan is uniformly firm. It does not rely on only one intelligence agency: it has two of its own and controls and runs several of the normal governmental apparatus.

Nothing moves in Pakistan without the three major intelligence agencies noticing it. So how could the army not know about the transfer of nuclear technology?

For Pakistanis, it is too serious a national lapse to worry about who gets the ultimate blame. After all, the ultimate consequences will be visited upon all the people.

No one can buy the facile theory that a few individuals organized or joined an underworld, spread over four continents, to make money out of Pakistan's perceived great achievement.

Foreigners and Pakistanis alike are sure to suspect that Khan had the active support and assistance of successive army chiefs, especially Gen Aslam Beg who led the army from 1988 to 1991 and during whose reign this grand smuggling enterprise began.

As it happens, Musharraf is too precious to the U.S. 'war on terror'. Washington has accepted the story at face value for the time being. Other major nuclear powers have reasons not to raise a rumpus. Musharraf is also trying to make up with India and the Indians are reasonably pleased with him.

But that does not mean that the Khan and company have got away with the loot safely. For one thing, Musharraf is taking his time with the rest of the scientists and security men now in the jug. For another, it is only the beginning of a new and perhaps longer story.

Most Pakistanis expect that once Musharraf's utility for stabilizing the Afghan situation in its low-intensity war is over, Pakistan may see a new U.S. face on this issue.

The kind of activity that has gone on Pakistan is sure to receive a close hard look from the White House, no matter who its tenant is. Many others too will then join the United States in reopening the case. Maybe the army's overlordship of Pakistan's governance will be imperilled on pain of the threat of UN sanctions.

Immediate reaction to the disgrace of Khan was manifest the day after his 'admission': there was a countrywide strike in Pakistan. Bigger businesses remained shut and road transport in urban areas remained sparse.

The reason for the success of the strike was the people's shock and not so much because of the popularity of those who gave the call -- the alliance of religious parties. Musharraf himself has called Khan his hero and praised his earlier contribution to national security.

In domestic politics, the whole affair is a setback to the big pro-Bomb lobby. Some say they do not believe the charges against the 'national hero' despite the reports of Khan's corruption in possessing huge real estate assets and foreign accounts bulging with millions of dollars.

But Khan's charisma and stature are sure to suffer as time passes and the dimensions of what has happened and what might yet happen sink in.

The small anti-Bomb lobby believes that so long as the nuclear weapons stay in the armories of India and Pakistan, the secondary threat of proliferation and accident remain.

They are not too hopeful about the current thaw between the India-Pakistan because of the mischief the nuclear weapons play. Only a nuclear-safe arrangement -- an oxymoron really in South Asia's current state -- is on the agenda. Deeper thought on the subject is absent.

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Albion Monitor February 12, 2004 (

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