AQ Khan Nuke Mart: Pakistan Come Clean on Nuclear Matters

Reshmi Kazi

The statement of a former Prime Minister of Pakistan on Dr A Q Khan, although created furor, largely welcomed by the advocates of nuclear non-proliferation. The exiled Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) leader, Benazir Bhutto categorically stated that she will permit the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to interview Dr AQ Khan, the father of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb, to determine the credibility of the allegation against him being solely involved in nuclear technology proliferation from Pakistan to other countries. Benazir Bhutto’s statement at a seminar organized by the Middle East Institute in Washington on 25 September 2007 constitutes a break from the conventional Pakistani attitude over the AQ Khan nuclear issue.

The uproar from the government as well as opposition leaders on the Bhutto’s statement only reflects the lack of maturity of the Pakistani administration to come clean on the infamous nuclear ‘Wal-mart’ issue, as it has been called by Western media, generated from within the country. The intense reaction to the PPP leader’s statement to a hypothetical situation does not reflect well on a government that possesses nuclear weapons capability and is presently undergoing a political crisis. There is little or no dispute that Pakistan constitutes the safe haven for terrorist groups as confirmed by several investigative reports. The Nuclear Threat Initiative in its latest commissioned report, ‘Securing the Bomb 2007’ has identified armed jihadi groups operating in the tribal belt and Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK), which have merged with Al Qeada and has demonstrated their willingness to use nuclear weapons. In December 1999, Nazeer Ahmad, military advisor to the Al-Qeada, in a fax message to the Voice of America in Washington, proclaimed that the goal of these groups is to fight against Americans, Russians and Indians. The study has also reported the existence of nuclear insiders within Pakistan with nefarious intentions.

However, Benazir Bhutto’s statement of facilitating IAEA’s access to Dr Khan is not different from the stated official Pakistani stand which had already allowed the UN agency to send questions to Dr Khan as well as sent back those questionnaires consisting responses from him. Nevertheless, significant doubts remain within the world community on how far those responses were influenced by the state apparatus.

Benazir Bhutto has been accused of injuring popular sentiments by her statement on AQ Khan – a national hero. Such allegations barely hold ground especially when the military government under President Pervez Musharraf had on earlier occasion reportedly permitted the US government to interrogate AQ Khan. A Pentagon official had stated that ‘the Pakistani government has given the US new access to AQ Khan,’ who had been ‘singing like a canary,’ furnishing facts on Iran’s ‘weapons design and its time-line for building a bomb’ as reported in Seymour Hersh’s article – The Iran Plans - in the New Yorker (17 April 2006).

It can be disputed whether AQ Khan can be anymore regarded as a ‘national hero’. It is true that AQ Khan took great pains in providing Pakistan with nuclear capability. However, he is the same AQ Khan who put Pakistan on the most shameful list of dangerous proliferators of sensitive nuclear blue-prints, material and technology and facilitating a thriving nuclear black-market. Even if for the sake of argument, it is accepted that AQ Khan is a national hero, then why is he meted with the kind of treatment that he has been under house arrest since 2004 with limited access to the outside world. Does this treatment befit a national hero who provided Pakistan with nuclear capability?

On the contrary, it must be appreciated that Mrs Bhutto’s efforts will only serve to make matters better for AQ Khan. It will determine if Dr Khan was solely responsible for transferring nuclear technology to other countries or if there were other elements of government were also involved as well. The international community is keen to know how nuclear technology and material were proliferated under a strong and centralized command and control structure as claimed by Pakistan. To this extent, Mrs Bhutto’s reference to a parliamentary hearing will only convince the world community that Pakistan wants to come transparent on its much controversial nuclear weapons programme. It will also assure the international community that Pakistan does not wish to project itself as a rogue nation involved in illegal nuclear trade, an accusation which is leveled against Pakistan constantly.

It is quite obvious that the AQ Khan matter is basically being used as a political weapon. AQ Khan is being deliberately shielded by Pakistan primarily because the government fears that in addition to revealing his global network might expose names from the Pakistan Army. AQ Khan is on record having stated that all the high ranking army generals within the Pakistan Army since 1987 were aware of his proliferation network. The Pakistani Government by maintaining an ambiguous stand seeks to keep nuclear affairs outside the purview of democratic-civilian domain. In fact, the Pakistani Army has effectively kept out even the Air Force and Navy out and used it as a “trump card” against the civilian politicians who are not allowed to play any role in nuclear decision-making.

Benazir Bhutto has been accused of mortgaging the security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme and national interests for petty political ends. The present government’s position is that it had fully investigated the matter and the international community was satisfied with the proceedings. If that be the case then why does the issue of Pakistan being still involved in nuclear proliferation keeps surfacing time and again. As for Bhutto, putting Pakistan’s national interests at stake, she can no more be held culpable than the present government that has kept the AQ Khan case under state censor thereby subjecting Pakistan to constant humiliation of being the most prominent nuclear technology smuggler of the times. Bhutto’s political future notwithstanding, what is important is that this is a one time opportunity for Pakistan to restrain from strong reaction against efforts to come clean on matters of nuclear proliferation and establish itself as a responsible nation.

Author Note
Dr Reshmi Kazi is Associate Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi