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A Khan-for-Osama deal?

By Amit Baruah

To get Osama bin Laden, Washington has withheld even gentle criticism of the Pakistani establishment on the proliferation issue.

THE PAKISTAN President, Pervez Musharraf, pardoned the "father" of the country's nuclear bomb, Abdul Qadeer Khan, even before a trial. His domestic constraints were clear — safeguarding the country's nuclear weapons was all-important.

While taking credit for busting the nuclear smuggling ring, the United States has displayed its own constraints by refraining from even pointing a finger at the Pakistani military-intelligence complex for its overall stewardship of the country's "imported" nuclear programme.

The ramifications of the nuclear smuggling ring need further investigation. Were Iran, Libya and North Korea the only countries to which Khan and Co. hawked their wares? What about non-state actors?

Two recent public statements — one by the U.S. President, George W. Bush, and the other by the Central Intelligence Agency Director, George Tenet — reveal that Washington does not want to publicly confront Gen. Musharraf and the Pakistan military.

In a speech on February 12, Mr. Bush "personalised" the whole smuggling ring operating from Pakistan by laying the blame totally on the shoulders of Dr. Khan. "He [Khan] served as the director of the network, its leading scientific mind, as well as its primary salesman ... he and his associates sold the blueprints for centrifuges to enrich uranium, as well as a nuclear design stolen from the Pakistani Government."

On February 24, the CIA Director touted the roll-up of "A.Q. Khan and his network" as one of the most significant counter-proliferation successes in years. "... For 25 years Khan directed Pakistan's uranium enrichment programme. He built an international network of suppliers to support uranium enrichment efforts in Pakistan that also supported similar efforts in other countries," Mr. Tenet said in a testimony before the U.S. Senate's Committee on Intelligence.

Why is there no reference to the Pakistan military and the Government? The reluctance of Mr. Bush and Mr. Tenet to comment on the environment in which Dr. Khan operated has much to do with the value that Gen. Musharraf and his associates have for the Americans.

The over-riding priority for Bush and Co. is to "get Osama" and the rest of his Al-Qaeda associates, believed to be still operating on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. This objective, in an election year, takes precedence over pointing a finger at the Pakistani establishment, which, at the very least, winked at the proliferation.

Dr. Khan operated within the "goals" set by the Pakistani military, which never trusted the civilian governments with the country's nuclear programme. There is no way the military could have been unaware of Dr. Khan's operations. His Islamabad residence was heavily guarded at all times by Pakistani intelligence agencies. Even if there were some tactical gains to be made by not stressing the context in which Dr. Khan operated, some comments from the U.S. about the role of the Pakistani military were in order.

Consider this: a declassified U.S. State Department Briefing Paper on the Pakistani nuclear programme dated June 23, 1983, said, "In enrichment, Pakistan is embarked on an effort to build a gas centrifuge facility capable of producing high enriched uranium. Development of a centrifuge enrichment facility in Pakistan was begun in earnest in 1975 and is now centred at Kahuta near Islamabad ...

"The program uses European technology [the designs for the machines were stolen by a Pakistani national] and has involved energetic procurement activities in various countries. The Engineering Research Laboratories [ERL, later known as KRL], the organisation responsible for Pakistan's unsafeguarded enrichment program has long relied on an international network of procurement agents and front organisations to purchase the equipment for use in its gas centrifuge enrichment plant. ...''

The paper, posted on the National Security Archive's website, only goes to show that the existence of this network of agents was known to the U.S. 20 years ago. Khan & Co. acquired by cash and stealth the wherewithal to produce Pakistan's nuclear bomb. Those who stole also sold. By making a scapegoat out of Dr. Khan, the Pakistani military-intelligence establishment has attempted to absolve itself of any responsibility for the nuclear smuggling that has been going on from the country.

With American troops based on Pakistani soil and in Afghanistan, the U.S. has become a "party" in the politics of South and South-West Asia. To get Osama bin Laden at this juncture, Washington has withheld even gentle criticism of the Pakistani establishment.

For years, Washington has been building up visions of a "dirty nuclear bomb" falling into the hands of terrorists. Leading lights of the Bush administration such as the Deputy Defence Secretary, Paul Wolfowitz, have spoken of the dangers of proliferation from non-state actors.

The Pakistani state cannot be absolved of the responsibility for the A.Q. Khan smuggling ring. Neither can we take at face value Pakistani statements that proliferation activities have now come to a halt. To make these statements credible, Pakistan must voluntarily open all its facilities to the International Atomic Energy Agency and provide full details about the A.Q. Khan smuggling ring to an IAEA-led investigation.

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