A.Q. Khan Iceberg Continues to Haunt Musharraf, Pakistani Army

The twin halos of celebrity and notoriety continue to envelop Pakistani nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan and this was evidenced in his interview to a news agency on July 4. During the course of the interview, Khan made a startling disclosure when he observed that "North Korea received centrifuges from Pakistan in a 2000 shipment supervised by the army during the rule of President Pervez Musharraf".

To compound the allegation, he further added: "It was a North Korean plane, and the army had complete knowledge about it and the equipment...it must have gone with his (Musharraf's) consent."

This charge has been the equivalent of putting a skunk in the air-conditioner. There has been considerable ferment and anguish about the culpability of the army in an already troubled Pakistan ever since this interview was released. To retrieve the situation, Khan claimed that his remarks were distorted and that he had not implicated the army.

But in a complex interpretation, Khan clarified that this revelation was actually made by Musharraf in his biography 'In the Line of Fire' - which has further incensed public opinion.

Predictably, the Pakistani establishment has denied these allegations and, in a rare media interaction, the Strategic Plans Division (SPD) Director General, Lt. Gen. (retd) Khalid Kidwai, asserted on July 5: "These were all individual acts. The president and the army had no role."

A major media effort is on to set the record "straight" and remove any blame that could be directed against Musharraf as Pakistani Army chief at the time, but like Lady Macbeth's deep psychological predicament, ("Out, damn'd spot! Out, I say!"), the stain refuses to go away.

Pakistan's role in actively nurturing an international clandestine nuclear network has been on the radar screen of intelligence agencies and nuclear watchers for many decades, but this issue came into the public domain in a dramatic manner in early 2004.

Nudged by the US and its deep post-9/11 anxiety about nuclear material and knowhow falling into terrorist hands, the Pakistani military moved swiftly and carefully quarantined the celebrated father of the Pakistani bomb. Given his revered status in the country, an intricate drama was orchestrated wherein Khan did a televised mea culpa - and claimed that he was the man behind the clandestine network - and that he was motivated purely by "personal greed". And, as part of the public charade, Musharraf magnanimously pardoned the scientist-hero but placed him under house arrest. The US, it may be inferred, was part of this enactment and the objective at the time was to keep the Pakistani Army out of the blame game.

Consequently, an incredulous narrative was woven that suggested that Khan's enormous network that involved nuclear related shipments being transported by Pakistani Air Force planes took place for years - without the army's direct knowledge or involvement.

Unfortunately, Khan's latest interview has re-opened a can of worms and this could not have come at a more inopportune moment given the various turbulences that currently engulf Pakistan from suicide bombings in the heart of the country to unrelenting challenges mounted by the neo-Taliban along the Pakistan-Afghan border, even as the major political parties are engaged in bitter fights over multiple issues. But the murky Khan iceberg whose tip has come back into public focus merits deep and sustained attention by the global community and India in particular.

In many ways, the Khan episode symbolizes the opacity, complexity and contradictions that characterise the nuclear proliferation domain as also the culpability of the major nuclear powers in either abetting this clandestine network or turning an indulgent blind eye when confronted with damning evidence.

To that extent, the Pakistani establishment is not alone in its nurturing of the Khan network and a number of recent books and documents throw valuable light on this dark chapter of the global nuclear trajectory. 'Deception' by Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark (Penguin, 2007) is the most rigorous volume that has appeared about the Khan "confession" and the conclusion of the authors merits recall.

"In reality, Khan's confession was a ruse. It takes more than one person to make a mess of this proportion. Khan was the fall guy...the nuclear bazaar Khan claimed to have orchestrated certainly existed, but where the public and private stories diverged was that the covert trade in doomsday technology was not the work of one man, but the foreign policy of a nation, plotted and supervised by Pakistan's ruling military clique, supposedly a key ally in America's war on terror. The true scandal was how the trade and the Pakistan military's role in it had been discovered by high-ranking US and European officials, many years before, but rather than interdict it they had worked hard to cover it up," the authors said.

Alas, the "dam'nd spot" of clandestine nuclear proliferation a la Lady Macbeth that has tainted the credibility and integrity of the Pakistani military has spread to many other palms including the non-proliferation zealots in the US. Strangely enough, during a recent visit to Washington, this author was struck by the near indifference or ignorance among nuclear experts and South Asia watchers about the Levy tome and its tectonic findings.

It is ironical that July 1 this year marked 40 years since the US, the former USSR and Britain signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and spearheaded the global nuclear non-proliferation effort with unmatched zeal. But even as state parties were corralled into becoming non-nuclear weapon states, the non-state entity was given a blank cheque that is still being cashed.

A total "change" in the international nuclear discourse and concomitant policy orientation is imperative to get to the bottom of the A.Q. Khan iceberg and if US presidential hopeful Barak Obama is all about "change", this is an issue that must come up on his agenda as a big ticket item. The alternative is the strewing of more red herrings in the A.Q. Khan soap opera with all its ominous implications for nuclear terrorism.

(C. Uday Bhaskar writes on strategic affairs. He can be contacted at cudayb@gmail.com.)


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