25 March 2005
Pakistan's nuclear dilemma
By A.R. Siddiqi
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at her joint press conference with Foreign Minister Khurshid Kasuri during her recent visit to Islamabad did not mince words about the threat potential of Dr A.Q. Khan's nuclear 'entrepreneur ship'.
The Khan network, she said, represented a threat 'not just to the United States, but to Pakistan, to the region, to the international community'. A statement simple in verbiage but ominously loaded in intent.
Whereas Pakistan has cooperated with the US in breaking up the Khan network, the US also had a number of other countries cooperating with it on that front, Ms Rice said. She stressed her country's interest in knowing what happened so that 'we can safeguard against this kind of black market entrepreneurship....'
Ms Rice left no doubt that her country would not rest content until fully equipped with vital information leading to the origins of the Khan network and its international world-wide sweep.
Pakistan might well have gone out of its way to assuage US anxiety on that score, yet, apparently, not far enough to get down to the bottom of the case. In other words, to bring the culprit to book and punish him to meet the ends of American justice, ala Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay style.
One of the questions Pakistan must answer pertains to the mystifying ignorance or the deliberate connivance of authorities at the highest level when this illicit trafficking was going on for over a decade or so.
How could an operation as elaborate and world-wide happen right under the nose of Islamabad without a finger being pointed or a hand raised to stop the mess at the source?
Time magazine in a recent cover story 'The merchant of menace', asked: How did A.Q. Khan become the world's most dangerous trafficker? Even as an essentially speculative story based on information provided by unnamed sources, it did inestimable damage to Pakistan's image as a 'responsible' nuclear state nevertheless.
How can Pakistan boast of ensuring foolproof security of its nuclear assets with whole centrifuges and allied equipment being flown out of Islamabad airport either direct to the end-user or to Karachi for onward shipment to destination? This is a question calling for a categorical answer to satisfy the world community as well as our own public.
Time squarely accuses Abdul Qadeer Khan of 'stealing' nuclear designs from the Netherlands to help Pakistan build a bomb. He was then to create a vast network to trade nuclear secrets and 'illicit technology across several continents'.
Just about three weeks after the publication of the Time canard, Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmad appeared on TV (March 10) to confirm the substance of the story. Dr Khan, the information minister admitted in so many words, gave centrifuges to Iran in his 'individual capacity' and the government of Pakistan had nothing to do with it.
What sort of government would that be to have allowed the head of its highest security institution to indulge in extended piracy and not know about it?
As if the bare acknowledgement of Dr Khan's role as a private salesman of vital nuclear equipment was not enough, the information minister went on to say that the centrifuges (P-1 and P-2) provided by Dr Khan were 'outdated'. Dr Khan was thus acting not only as a private nuclear proliferator but also as a cheat.
The first to react to his information minister's gaffe was Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz himself. He said the minister was 'misquoted'. Less than a week later, President Pervez Musharraf told the BBC in an interview that no nuclear material was transferred.
Investigation 'revealed' that no 'nuclear material has been given over, other than some centrifuge parts, centrifuge designs.' By implication nothing like enriched uranium or fissile nuclear material was included in Dr Khan's bill of lading. It was the best the president could do in the face of distressing circumstances.
The somewhat baffling diversity of response to the A.Q. Khan affair has left the people at large wondering as to what exactly the truth might be. Even the Foreign Office versions about a 'request' from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) were tentative if not exactly evasive. According to the FO spokesman, 'We have not been asked to hand over any centrifuges to IAEA for inspection/verification) nor will Pakistan do so.'
The question remains as to what exactly Pakistan has been asked for. Also for how much longer will we be able to withstand the pressures being brought to bear on us to throw our nuclear programme open (if not the facility itself) to international inspection?
The writer is a retired brigadier of the Pakistan Army.
© The DAWN Group of Newspapers, 2005