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Humiliation of Abdul Qadeer Khan masks an even darker agenda

Zafar Bangash

The public humiliation of Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan, father of Pakistan’s nuclear programme, had a far deeper purpose than was apparent at first sight: it was meant not only to deflect attention from the military’s role in nuclear proliferation, but also to prepare the Pakistani people to accept more humiliating demands from the Americans. Pakistani president general Pervez Musharraf has given in to US pressure and handed the country’s nuclear assets over to a US-supervised committee – the US-Pakistan Liaison Committee – under the pretext of preventing them from "falling into the hands of extremists." The Americans are now working on plans to take complete control, thereby neutralizing Pakistan’s nuclear capability, which has been the mainstay of its defence policy since the early eighties. This sorry state of affairs has come about because Musharraf does not have the courage to stand up to the US.

Additional pressure is being exerted to force Islamabad to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), something it had hitherto resisted, pleading India’s non-compliance as its justification. This position has now become untenable in light of the clumsy manner in which the Abdul Qadeer Khan saga has been handled. Musharraf himself has bluntly stated that unless Pakistan complies with more US demands, bombs will begin to fall on Pakistani cities, and its nuclear assets will be wiped out. This stands in sharp contrast to his claims in September 2001 that his U-turn on Afghanistan had "saved" the country’s Kashmir policy and its nuclear programme. He had also claimed that he had won America’s friendship. In October 2001, while visiting Islamabad, US secretary of state Colin Powell had said that Washington would not abandon Pakistan again. How quickly the Americans forget their pledges is amply demonstrated by the nuclear-weapons saga.

Musharraf’s alleged friendship with the Americans and his submission to them have not helped Pakistan one little bit. The Kashmiris have now been abandoned, again under pressure from the US. It is all smiles and handshakes with the Indians, despite the latter continuing their murderous policy against civilians in Kashmir. Having disposed of Kashmir in such a hurry, the nuclear programme is now being sacrificed at the altar of that strange beast called the "national interest." It is invoked each time Pakistani rulers are forced to abandon a policy and the people have to be placated.

Nor has Washington’s mild reaction to Musharraf’s quick pardon of Dr Khan, after the latter’s televised confession of February 4, been without its downside. The Americans could afford to pretend to magnanimity in public because they had already secured their objectives. On February 6 NBC Television’s Nightly News reported: "The United States has been working secretly with Pakistan to protect its nuclear weapons from getting in the hands of terrorists or rogue commanders." Even president Bush hinted at the covert cooperation, saying: "Yes, they [Pakistan’s nuclear assets] are secure… and that’s important," according to the NBC’s Andrea Mitchell. Referring to the US-Pakistan Liaison Committee’s operations, the NBC story went on: "They meet at least every two months and are helping Pakistan develop state-of-the-art security — including secret authorization codes for the arsenal."

While Pakistan is not a signatory to the NPT, the forced confessions of Dr Khan will come to haunt policy-makers in the not-too-distant future. If the father of Pakistan’s nuclear programme can be treated so shabbily, which scientist will want to risk his safety and security to work on sensitive projects in the future? It has also been reported that Dr Khan suffered a heart attack last month, again under pressure to which he has been subjected unnecessarily to save someone else’s skin. The fiasco has effectively undermined Pakistan’s nuclear programme from within.

Serious questions are also being asked about Washington’s behaviour. If the US can be so crude and rough in dealing with Pakistan when Pakistan’s help is so desperately needed in Afghanistan, what will it do when that help is no longer needed or wanted? US-led sanctions, imposed through the UN Security Council, for Pakistan’s self-confessed proliferation, are likely. Dr Khan has been accused of selling nuclear secrets and material to Libya, Islamic Iran and North Korea. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN nuclear watchdog that is essentially a front for the US, and made the allegations against Pakistan, has refused to release the letter containing these charges, despite repeated requests from Pakistani journalists.

The Western press and media have indulged in wild speculation against Pakistan and Dr Khan, while Musharraf has foolishly accepted blame when a firm stand could have averted the mess Pakistan finds itself in today. Equally revealing is the fact that only Pakistan and Iran have been singled out for this smear campaign; North Korea has made it clear that it will defy the US, and colonel Mu’ammar Qaddafi of Libya has surrendered unconditionally. There is also, of course, little or no mention of the dozens of European middlemen and companies involved in the nuclear proliferation.

Some Western diplomats have finally admitted that the circle of European countries involved in nuclear proliferation is getting wider. The UN probe has identified people and firms from Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Sri Lanka, Switzerland, South Africa, Japan, Dubai, Malaysia, the United States, Spain, Russia and China, yet Western reports have concentrated almost exclusively on Pakistan and Iran. "There are a number of Germans whose names are being mentioned," according to one Western diplomat quoted by Reuters news agency. However, he then tried to "spin" his statement by saying that there are so many branches of the black market that it is difficult to say who is doing what. "It’s clear that there was a person or persons masterminding the whole thing," the diplomat said. "It was very well organized and I don’t think most suppliers knew who the end users were."

The IAEA has questioned two former senior employees of a German firm, Leybold Heraeus, a leading manufacturer of vacuum technology. Leybold is now a unit of the Swiss firm Unaxis AG, called Leybold Vakuum AG, which specialises in vacuum-pump technology. Only one of the Germans on the IAEA list lives in Germany; one lives in the Netherlands, another is in Switzerland, and the fourth is now dead. One diplomat called the man in Switzerland Germany’s "most significant" suspect, according to Reuters.

Nor is the US clean in the matter of nuclear proliferation or in that of other weapons of mass destruction. While Saddam Husain’s name comes readily to mind (he was given the wherewithal to make and use chemical weapons and poison gases against Iran in the nineteen-eighties), more recently the US has supplied nuclear fuel to India as well. Nuclear Technology Intelligence (NTI), a US-based body, has reported that as recently as 2001 the US supplied several tonnes of nuclear fuel to India. Obviously India is considered a responsible friendly country, and therefore exempt from pressure; yet an "ally" like Pakistan apparently cannot be trusted. India is also being groomed for a role against China, the US’s emerging rival in the Far East, but Pakistan must be neutralised to assuage Indian concerns, and probably because it is a Muslim country.

For decades the Pakistani establishment, especially the military, has allowed itself to be used by the Americans. In the eighties Pakistan was the conduit for CIA arms to the Afghans fighting the Soviet army in Afghanistan. Although general Zia ul-Haq managed to keep the Americans out of direct interference in Afghanistan, it was impossible for him to avoid following the American-stated policy completely. Once the Red Army had been driven out of Afghanistan, the Americans abandoned Pakistan and slapped sanctions on it. Pakistan under general Musharraf is again acting as America’s handmaiden in Afghanistan, but this time the Americans are not being so circumspect; they have realized that Musharraf is weak and can be pushed around. This is amply demonstrated by the manner in which Musharraf has given in to every US demand, however unreasonable. Even before September 2001, the US had demanded that Pakistan remove all anti-US, anti-India and pro-Islamic generals and scientists from any effective role in the military or in the nuclear programme. September 2001 provided the perfect opportunity to threaten Musharraf, who buckled after a single phone call from Powell, much to the surprise of the Americans themselves.

By accepting unsubstantiated allegations made in the media, and forcing Dr Khan to declare publicly that he had passed nuclear expertise to other countries, Musharraf has in effect accepted Pakistan’s designation as a "rogue nuclear state". This has been done presumably to deflect any blame from the military, his main constituency, but it is naïve to believe that the rest of the world does not know who the real decision-makers in Pakistan are. For many years successive Pakistani rulers, especially military rulers, including Musharraf, gave assurances to the outside world that Pakistan’s nuclear programme was in secure military hands; now Musharraf is singing a very different tune. This will simply not hold water.

Israel and India, the two parties that benefit most from Pakistan’s nuclear potential being neutralised, have remained largely silent. Israel has continued to parrot allegations against Islamic Iran, while India, hardly able to conceal its glee, has remained mostly quiet, aware that America is doing what it was not able to achieve on its own. But in the first public reaction to the episode, Yashwant Sinha, India’s foreign minister, revealed his government’s thinking; he said on February 6: "It is not an internal matter of Pakistan. It is a matter that concerns the entire international community... It appears to me that things will not stop here."

As if to point up the close collaboration between Washington and Delhi, Bush called on February 11 for nuclear proliferation to be made an international crime, by means of a UN resolution. Speaking at the National Defence University in Washington, he proposed the closure of what he described as a "loophole" in the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, which allows non-nuclear powers to pursue civilian nuclear power programmes. Enrichment and reprocessing of uranium for power-plants should be carried out only in countries that are currently exporting nuclear fuel, he said.

Regardless of the international treaties that come into force in the aftermath of the current nuclear fiasco, Musharraf has landed Pakistan in a mess. It will be difficult to come out of it clean, unless he or another Pakistani ruler develops a backbone that enables him to stand up to US bullying. Given their slavish mindset, it is probably too much to expect. People who do not have strength, dignity and self-respect cannot hope for respect from others.

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 33, No. 1

Muharram 10, 14252004-03-01

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