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To curb proliferation

PAKISTAN HAS BEEN embarrassed by the disclosures that it was the source of nuclear weapon knowhow for North Korea, Libya and Iran. However, the international community has opted to provide the Pakistani leadership an opportunity further to correct the country's policies instead of putting it in the dock. A few scientists who work at the nuclear research facilities at Kahuta have been interrogated and Abdul Qadir Khan, the person who provided his country with the weapon technology, has been softly questioned. This appears to be part of an effort to create the impression that proliferation activity was conducted by a few rogue technicians without the knowledge or permission of the political leadership. The United States, which is always hyper-sensitive to efforts made by other countries to acquire weapons of mass destruction, has played its part in this attempt at obfuscation. It was not chagrined even when its initial claims, that Pakistan had not exported weapon technology after President Pervez Musharraf took office, became questionable. The U.S. administration has been able to hold the rest of the international community to the view that it would be better to work with General Musharraf as he tries to fulfil promises to plug loopholes at the technical level and to recast his country's world view.

Pakistan's decision to share its nuclear expertise was, in some ways, an offshoot of the mindset it adopted over most of the 1980s and 1990s. It believed that the alliance with the U.S. in the war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan immunised its nuclear programme from international scrutiny and that it could even get away with a degree of clandestine proliferation. Dr. Khan was one among several prominent Pakistanis who propagated the view that the nuclear arsenal had given the country a leading position in the Islamic world and that it was morally obliged to share some of its knowledge. Pakistan had thought all along that it could forever retain the capacity to deny any role in the weapon programmes pursued by other countries. Recent developments have exposed the fundamental flaw in this thought process. Pakistan might have been able to retain deniability if the three countries to which it allegedly provided knowhow continued to withstand pressure to comply with non-proliferation norms. Once Iran and Libya threw open their nuclear facilities, international inspectors were bound to track down the sources of their weapon programme.

Pakistan might have needed the financial assistance and missile technology that Libya and North Korea respectively could offer in exchange for assistance in the development of the nuclear programme. However, the provision of expertise to Iran was particularly ill-considered given Pakistan's strategic situation. Iran and Pakistan competed fiercely for the leading role in Afghanistan for much of the last decade. Iran was also incensed at the treatment meted out to Pakistani Shias by the Sunni majority. While the Iranian programme is not believed to have advanced to the weapons stage, Islamabad should surely have thought more carefully before helping a potential rival. Official India has wisely declined to comment on these developments. The three countries allegedly assisted by Pakistan do not threaten India in any manner. The reticence to comment on the subject also accords with the current policy of refraining from the practice of trying to portray Pakistan as an irresponsible country at any and every turn. The task before the international community is to ensure that the proliferation — horizontal as well as vertical — of nuclear weapons is curbed. To that end all the countries that possess these weapons must ensure that there are no leakages of sensitive material or knowledge from their nuclear installations.

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