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Pakistan nukes: General mayhem
By Syed Saleem Shahzad

KARACHI - According to the official version released this week, Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan, the architect of Pakistan's nuclear-weapons program, has admitted in a lengthy confession that he was involved in a personal capacity in the transfer of technology and information to Iran, North Korea and Libya over a period of many years up to the mid-1990s.

However, according to those claiming to be close to Khan, who has been under house arrest for more than a week, the 66-year-old metallurgist denies elements of his "confession" statement and points instead squarely to the complicity of the country's military in nuclear proliferation.

What is not in doubt is that from the beginning, in the mid-1970s, Khan has been intimately involved in every stage of the building of Pakistan's nuclear bomb, right up to May 1998, when Pakistan conducted underground nuclear tests. Also not in dispute is that Pakistani know-how - in whatever form - certainly ended up in Iran, as that country has confirmed to the United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency.

It is inconceivable, therefore, that Khan could not have known if technology or information from the closely guarded program (which, for most of the time from its inception, fell directly under the wing of the military) was being transferred elsewhere.

And therein lies the dilemma for President General Pervez Musharraf.

If the military has indeed been involved - reports doing the rounds in Pakistan now even point to Musharraf himself - and Musharraf attempts to pin the blame on Khan and a few others as "loose cannons" and takes them to trial, the scientist can easily retaliate by spilling every single unsavory bean. The other option for Musharraf is to go easy on Khan, such as by pardoning him, and attempt to spread some of the blame on to lesser figures not in a position to tell too many nasty tales.

Initially, Musharraf appears to have taken the first route, hence Khan's confession given to the media late on Sunday, and stories fed to the media by a brigadier in the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of the murky underworld of proliferation in which Khan was the key figure.

But as it emerged that Khan was not prepared to shoulder the blame on his own, Musharraf has changed tack slightly.

The Interior Ministry announced on Wednesday that it had ordered the detention of four scientists for three months on accusations that they passed on nuclear-weapons technology to other countries. The order came into effect retroactively on January 31. The four, who had been under investigation for some time, are: Dr Mohammed Farooq, Dr Nazir Ahmed, Brigadier (retired) Sajawal Khan Malik and Major (retired) Islam ul-Haq. These are relatively lesser lights who would not have Khan's intimate knowledge of the country's nuclear secrets.

And now reports are swirling in Pakistan that Musharraf will pardon Khan without trial. Some newspapers are quoting an unnamed official who has been closely associated with Khan's investigation as saying that he will be absolved since there is a risk that a trial would expose the Pakistan army's involvement in the scandal.

This scenario is reinforced by news on Wednesday aired on state TV that Khan had met with Musharraf in Rawalpindi and "accepted full responsibility for all transfers", but importantly, Khan is said to have asked for clemency.

"Khan has accepted full responsibility for all the nuclear proliferation activities which were conducted by him during the period in which he was at the helm of affairs of the Khan Research Laboratories," a government statement said, referring to Pakistan's main nuclear weapons laboratory.

Musharraf will now consult the National Command Authority, the top decision-making body on Pakistan's nuclear and missile program, before deciding whether to accept Khan's plea for mercy, the statement said. Pakistan television showed an interview with Khan, who said he had told the president "what had happened". "He [Musharraf] appreciated the frankness with which I gave him the details and insh'allah [God willing] he will discuss with the cabinet, with the prime minister, with other colleagues and then he will take a decision how to proceed and close this matter."

The way is now cleared for Musharraf magnanimously to absolve Khan, who is, after all, widely revered in the country, as he not only developed the Muslim world's first nuclear bomb but in doing so, the argument goes in much of Pakistan, he kept giant neighbor India at bay.

The "clemency" solution seems to be the one favored by Washington, too. On Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan, in a briefing to the media, said the United States valued Musharraf's assurances that the Pakistani government had never been involved in technology transfers to Iran, North Korea and Libya. "He [Musharraf] has assured us that Pakistan was not involved in any of the proliferation activity that you are talking about," McClellan said.

This position has been backed up by US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, who, in an interview with Japan's Asahi Shimbun, said that only individuals, and not the Pakistan government, had been involved in nuclear proliferation. "The US has held significant discussions with the Pakistan government, which has been very forthright in the last several years with us about proliferation," Armitage said.

Guilty as charged?
Though Pakistan's nuclear program was the brainchild of premier Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, when General Zia ul-Haq overthrew Bhutto's civilian government in a coup in 1977, Zia embraced the initiative right up until his death in a plane crash in 1988.

Other military names that have been bandied about as integral to proliferation include at least three chiefs of army staff: General Mirza Aslam Beg, General Jehangir Karamat and Musharraf, who held that position when he grabbed power in a bloodless coup in 1999.

According to an insider familiar with the debriefing of Beg and Karamat - who maintain their innocence - a whole range of military officials, the ISI and undercover agents established a massive network with tentacles spread all over the Asia-Pacific, Southern Africa, Europe and America.

Hussain Haqqani, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, DC, spoke to Asia Times Online from the United States. Hussain was once a favorite adviser of General Zia, and he served in two civilian governments in Pakistan - those of Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto.

"General Musharraf has been trying to persuade the world that he is the good guy in Pakistan and that he controls the army. But the fact is that it is incredulous to suggest that one man, alone, can be the West's trustworthy ally in a nation of 150 million and that somehow he is the only general in Pakistani history who has seen the light and knows how to do the right thing ... It is clear that Musharraf and his team of ruling generals have decided to make Dr Qadeer Khan and a few other scientists scapegoats for something that the military-intelligence complex probably did as an institution ... In the 1980s and 1990s, the military leadership felt it had to go behind America's back to realize its strategic objectives.

"Now, under Musharraf, some of them have changed their minds, but they are not willing to take collective responsibility for their institution's actions ... On the one hand Musharraf wants us to believe that the Pakistani military-intelligence machine controls almost everything that goes on in the country, and on the other they expect us to believe that nuclear secrets could have been traded without their approval ... By pointing the finger solely at Dr Khan, General Musharraf may have paved the way for Dr Khan's friends and associates to charge back that the military-intelligence machine is the real rogue in Pakistan. There will definitely be demands to hold this massive unaccountable machine accountable ..."

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Feb 5, 2004



Pakistan fights back after nuclear confessions
(Feb 3, '04)

US draws a line on Pakistan's nuclear program
(Jan 29, '04) 

 

     
         
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