Will Pakistan's nuclear pioneer be rehabilitated?

Will Pakistan's nuclear pioneer be rehabilitated?
By Syed Shoaib Hasan
BBC News, Islamabad

Pakistan's decision to ease restrictions on the "father" of its nuclear programme, AQ Khan, after four years of house arrest, has been on the cards since last February's elections.

One of the main election promises of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's PML-N party was his release and restoration to his "proper rank".

The PML-N emerged as the second biggest party in the elections and is now supporting the national government from the backbenches.

The PML-N's support for Dr Khan is strongly supported by the public in Pakistan.

'Tell-all' account

In the eyes of many, he transformed a third world agricultural country into a member of the elite nuclear weapons club.

As such he is akin to a demigod who has kept Pakistan's sovereignty intact from the "evil designs" of the West.

Dr Khan was put under house arrest after a televised confession in 2004 in which he took sole responsibility for passing on Pakistani nuclear weapons designs to North Korea, Libya and Iran.

Although he was subsequently pardoned by President Musharraf, the authorities still kept him under wraps in his Islamabad home.

The government has gone on the record several times since then to say that the issue has been effectively investigated and Dr Khan's network in Pakistan has been dismantled.

They have also said that Dr Khan's confession was a "tell all" account and that there was no more new information to unearth in regard to the affair.

But the International Atomic Energy Agency and investigators from Western governments have continued to ask for access to the scientist.

The implication is that neither the Pakistani government nor Dr Khan have come clean as to the full details of his nuclear weapons proliferation enterprise.

Nuclear secrets

International and local observers believe senior members of Pakistan's military and bureaucratic elite were also involved in the proliferation to North Korea, Iran and Libya.

Many believed that the "AQ Khan network" was actually run as part of state policy by senior officers from Pakistan's powerful army.

The army has always been the custodian and guardian of the country's nuclear arsenal and its secrets.

The so called "Khan network" is thus believed by some observers to have been part of the army's way of exchanging nuclear technology with other countries.

Much of the support for that view is based on the almost overnight appearance of Pakistan's array of long range ballistic missiles soon after it tested nuclear weapons in May 1998.

Previously, Pakistan's arsenal of such weapons were composed mostly of models which could only hit a small part of neighbouring India.

The sudden appearance of these long range missiles was linked to a possible deal with North Korea.

They were almost exact copies of North Korea's long range Taepo Dong missiles.

It is also considered in Pakistan an open secret that the army oversaw every single bit of the country's nuclear programme.

This meant Dr Khan's network could not have survived without the knowledge of senior army officers.

No such personnel have been named or charged in the entire affair.

These facts lend strong credence to Dr Khan's recent statements to the BBC that he was made a scapegoat.

It also means it is unlikely he will ever be given fully free access to the media. Such an exercise would open a can of worms for the government that could be too much to handle.

It could also cause almost irreparable damage to the US's most trusted ally in the so called war on terror - the Pakistan army.

But certainly, the US would like one question answered and laid to rest.

That concerns the speculation over Dr Khan's possible connections with al-Qaeda.

In short, the US would dearly like to know if the Pakistani scientist ever transferred any nuclear know-how or weapons parts to Osama bin Laden's network.

Most analysts agree that this is highly unlikely and no evidence produced so far even hints at such a possibility.

Dr Khan, despite holding virulently anti-western and anti-Israeli views, was always kept safely away from such "unstable characters", as one intelligence officer puts it.

"But certainly, there are those in the US who see things differently," the officer said. "Dr. Khan remains a fixture of their worst nightmares - the man who can deliver the power of God into the hands of the devil."


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