Pakistan, as well as being a crucial ally in President Bush’s “War on Terror,” is a major headache for Washington. Anti-Americanism is the norm among Pakistanis; Islamic fundamentalism is ascendant; the military establishment, supposedly friendly toward the U.S., is in fact extremely ambivalent about cooperating with Washington; Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s dictator, is apparently pro-U.S. but — partly because of this — extremely unpopular at home, as recent assassination attempts have shown; and elements of the military have long been suspected of lending support to Islamic fundamentalists and nuclear know-how to “rogue” states.
Matters weren’t exactly helped when Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of Pakistan’s nuclear program, who is under investigation for his apparently central role in a proliferation network, told investigators that Gen. Mirza Aslam Beg, the Pakistani army chief of staff from 1988 to 1991, was aware of assistance Khan was providing to Iran’s nuclear program and that two other army chiefs, in addition to Musharraf, knew and approved of his efforts on behalf of North Korea. If true, this, to put it mildly, would further strain U.S.-Pakistan relations.
The U.S. has supported Musharraf since he came to power in a coup in 1999, but especially since the “war on terror” post-9/11 increased Pakistan’s strategic importance. The Afghanistan-Pakistani border remains porous (some have even suggested that Osama bin Laden is or at some point was on the Pakistani side) and the U.S. continues to rely on Pakistani intelligence and military cooperation in its “clean-up” operations. The U.S is also keen to see that the recent talks over Kashmir translate into negotiations between India and Pakistan, both of which are declared nuclear powers. Mr. Musharraf is already under attack from right-wing elements within the military, is an affront to religious fundamentalists in part because of his support of the U.S. And should the persecution of Dr. Khan, a national hero be pursued, mass protests are likely to follow. None of these scenarios would bode well for Pakistan or the U.S.
A day after his startling admission, Khan puzzlingly said in a televised statement that he had committed “errors of judgment related to unauthorized proliferation activities” and stated “that there was never ever any kind of authorization for these activities by the government.”
(Which may be another way of saying that government officials came knocking and told Khan to keep his big mouth shut.)
Whether he was moonlighting or working with government approval, Khan was clearly up to no good. Over the weekend, it emerged that a group of Pakistani journalists were briefed by military officials that Khan “admitted to selling outdated ‘drawings and machinery'” to Libya, Iran and North Korea to earn money for Pakistan. Khan apparently claimed the transfers to Libya and Iran were also motivated by wanting to help other Muslim countries become nuclear powers.
On Monday, a Pakistani general restated accusations against Dr. Khan:
“He was fully autonomous in decision-making. He had the full authority to use the budget and was given that freedom to ensure the programme went on unhindered. Probably he has breached that trust, that is what one can say.”
This account strains credulity. The claim that for reasons of personal enrichment or ideological convictions (sharing weapons with fellow Muslim countries as a counterweight to Western and Israeli monopoly on nuclear technology and know-how), Dr. Khan and his associates shared information and machinery is plausible. The idea that Pakistan’s military, which dominated the country’s political life for decades did not authorize — or even know about — the transfers is not. In an interview with Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe , Duncan Lennox, a ballistic missiles specialist and the editor of Jane’s Strategic Weapon Systems said:
‘It would appear from the revelations in Pakistan that the nuclear technology of Pakistan was probably used as a barter for the ballistic-missile technology from North Korea and shared between those three other countries — [North Korea, Iran, and Libya]’…
Lennox says it is unlikely that neither Pakistan’s military nor its government would have been unaware of such a significant weapons deal — particularly since the Khan Research Laboratories also developed Pakistan’s first nuclear warhead. ‘[Khan’s confession] indicates even more strongly that the ballistic missile technology transfers agreed in 1992-93 have more to them than was thought at the beginning,’ he said. ‘It is understandable that they are linked with nuclear technology transfers. It was the Khan Research Laboratories that managed the Nodong program with North Korea and Iran and Pakistan — the ballistic missile program. And it was [Khan’s] laboratory that led Pakistan’s development program for the Gauhri missile — which is the Nodong. Therefore, it is not surprising to me that, as the same laboratory also led [Pakistan’s] nuclear program, that the two became linked.’
The government’s defense is that there have been no transgressions starting February 2000, when the National Command Authority, on the authorization by General Musharraf took over the supervision of the country’s nuclear program. Before then, we are led to presume that the scientists successfully fooled the military and a decade of security breaches passed unnoticed.
As unlikely as these claims are, the U.S. will probably go along with whatever face-saving, diplomatic explanation General Musharraf will improvise. Consider Tuesday’s White House briefing, at which Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary, said that:
‘President Musharraf has assured us that Pakistan was not involved in any kind of proliferation — I’m talking about the government of Pakistan. We value those assurances. The ongoing investigation into these proliferation issues by the government of Pakistan is a sign of how strongly Pakistan takes that commitment.’
Then came the following exchange with a reporter:
Q: “Again, are you taking his assurances on faith?”
MR. McCLELLAN: “No, I said, we value his assurances.”
Q: “But are you taking them on faith, or do you have independent evidence to back up that what he’s saying is true?”
MR. McCLELLAN: “Well, I think that I would leave it the way I did. We value his assurances.”
Expect no bombs, diplomatic or otherwise, to fall upon Islamabad.