Games generals play
By Aqil Shah, Dawn, July 12, 2008
NUCLEAR proliferation is not child’s play. Nuclear weapons are not toys. But our generals have behaved like little children and treated nuclear proliferation as a game.
When the heat was on, they simply denied involvement, blamed it on Dr A.Q. Khan and locked him up. Chapter closed. Wishful thinking. Skeletons can be shoved into a cupboard but they can pop back out any time. So they have. After four years in virtual captivity, Dr Khan has come out guns blazing. He has made bombastic statements targeting Pervez Musharraf against whom he understandably harbours a grudge. In the most outrageous claim, Musharraf is accused of plotting with the United States to break up Pakistan by 2015. In a first, though, Dr Khan has settled scores with his tormentors in khaki by directly implicating the army in nuclear proliferation.
In the summer of 2000, he claims, the army under Gen Pervez Musharraf supervised a shipment to Pyongyang of second-hand P1 centrifuge machines used in uranium enrichment. In his own words, “no flight, no equipment could go outside without … clearance from the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) and the Strategic Plans Division (SPD) and they used to be at the airport, not me.” Dr Khan claims he visited North Korea twice, once in 1994 and again in 1999. The main aim of the first trip was to procure Nodong ballistic missiles, subsequently renamed Ghauri. His mission on the second trip was to purchase shoulder-fired SA15 missiles during the Kargil war.
The veracity of Dr Khan’s statement can only be proved through a neutral inquiry. It is no state secret that Dr Khan’s spectacular rise and fall from grace was orchestrated by the military establishment. The man who stole nuclear blueprints for his country was turned into a cult figure above reproach. Eulogies were written, awards were conferred on him. When the crunch came, however, he was discarded by the military in a flash. Of course, A.Q. Khan is no angel. He is believed to have run Kahuta Research Laboratories with more than justified autonomy. But it is a fact that the country’s nuclear programme depends on a clandestine network of suppliers. The good doctor obviously bought nuclear materials for the state and probably sold some along the way. But it would be stretching credulity to breaking point if we believe that he acted as a rogue scientist out to make a killing under the nose of the military.
Dr Khan has since tried to absolve himself by claiming he was coerced into a confession and promised “full freedom” in return for admitting his guilt publicly. Obviously, he did not have the mettle or the clear conscience to stand up to the army at the time. But since the generals apparently failed to live up to their side of the agreement by denying him his freedom for more than four long years, he sees no reason to stick to his.
Not surprising then that the military came back swinging at Dr Khan for slinging mud at the army. The SPD chief Khalid Kidwai delivered a Bond-esque version of the proliferation story exclusively to a group of “patriotic journalists” summoned to the division’s headquarters. According to him, the military reportedly got wind of Dr Khan’s suspicious activities somewhere in the year 2000. It was then that the ISI raided Chaklala airport to stop a suspected shipment of centrifuges. But the consignment never arrived at the airport as Dr Khan’s men were tipped off in advance. The centrifuges were eventually recovered from inside an “air-conditioning factory”.
The retired general claims that when Dr Khan was confronted with evidence of his culpability, he eventually broke down and begged for a pardon. In other words, Dr Khan made a voluntary confession to avoid prosecution. Musharraf then granted him a pardon. Under its terms, Dr Khan was basically expected to remain hush. The pardon was reportedly subject to review if the government were to find evidence of his involvement in other nuclear proliferation activities.
Kidwai tried to bolster the credence of all his claims by assuring reporters that the government was in possession of irrefutable evidence implicating Dr Khan in the proliferation of nuclear materials. Kidwai added he was willing to share this proof “in camera” with neutral persons, or present it in court if need be. Claiming that proliferation was a closed case, Kidwai cited as evidence the determination made by the United States in North Korea and the IAEA in Iran that proliferation in each case was an individual act. The implication is that if only Dr Khan had had kept his big mouth shut, everything would have been alright. If only things were that simple.
Of course, A.Q. Khan’s incriminating statements will reinforce the widespread perception of Pakistan as a fragile state fraught with the threat of loose nukes falling into terrorist hands. When the architect of the country’s atomic bomb hurls grave accusations of nuclear wrongdoing at its military and vice versa in the full glare of the global media, we have a grave situation on our hands that must be resolved once and for all. We must face the issue head-on by holding the guilty accountable rather than burying our head in the sand and wishing it will all go away. The elected government must take charge and constitute a bipartisan commission of inquiry to investigate the matter. The army has every reason to cooperate with such an inquiry since it claims to have solid evidence that it was not involved in proliferation as an institution.
Ultimately, nuclear command and control must be taken out of the military’s hands if Pakistan is to assure the international community that its nuclear weapons are not up for grabs. The entire world seems to have figured out that weapons of mass destruction are too dangerous and important to be left to the generals. What are we waiting for?
The writer, a PhD candidate in political science at Columbia University, is conducting his doctoral research in Pakistan.firstname.lastname@example.org