Through years of media manipulation, AQ Khan succeeded in building his image as the “father of the atom bomb” and the “benefactor of Pakistan”. He harboured the ambition of becoming President of Pakistan one day
Dr AQ Khan recently accused the army and Pervez Musharraf of supervising a shipment of centrifuges to North Korea in 2000. He also repudiated the confessional statement that he had made in 2004 in which he took upon himself the sole responsibility for nuclear proliferation. He claimed that he made the statement in question in the “national interest” but was now repudiating it because the government had failed to honour the promises that it made to him.
The DG, Strategic Plans Division, denied these allegations and claimed to possess irrefutable evidence to prove Khan’s involvement in nuclear proliferation. He also showed readiness to share the evidence with neutral people on camera.
What are the implications of Khan’s outburst?
To address the fallout issue, we need to first understand how the West looks at nuclear proliferation by Pakistan. There seems to a clear divide between western governments on the one hand and the western media and think tanks on the other.
The former agree with the Pakistani government’s viewpoint that it was not involved in this sinister business; and that Khan acted alone. For example, the Bush Administration and the EU have issued a clean bill of health in favour of the Pakistani government.
The latter totally disagree with this viewpoint and see the Pakistani government’s hand in it. For example, Hans Blix, former head of the IAEA and UNMOVIC and head of the Swedish Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission, observed in a December 2006 report that Khan could not have acted “without awareness of the Pakistan government”. Similarly, the 2007 IISS report suggested that the past Pakistani governments had knowledge of, and were even involved in, Khan’s secondary proliferation activities.
Irrespective of the merits of the case, the Pakistani government has won the debate as far as western governments are concerned. Did this happen because they were convinced of Pakistan’s innocence or did they do so because they had no other choice given their absolute need to have Pakistan on board in the war on terror?
Given the visceral western hostility to Pakistan’s nuclear programme, it is hard to imagine that they would let the opportunity to attack it slip, let alone readily believe in its non-culpability. Circumstantial evidence suggests that they accepted the Pakistani government’s version for practical reasons.
Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark, authors of the book Deception: Pakistan, the United States, and the Secret Trade in Nuclear Weapons, may not be wrong in their suggestion that US Depute Secretary of State Richard Armitage made a secret deal with Musharraf in 2004 by virtue of which the Bush Administration agreed to give immunity to the generals involved in nuclear smuggling in exchange for Khan’s arrest; and accepted Musharraf’s continuation as president in uniform.
As to the significance of Khan’s outburst, let us first comprehend what he is alleging. He is claiming the involvement of the Pakistan Army in nuclear proliferation activities specifically in the case of North Korea in the year 2000, whereas the DG SPD is referring to Khan’s proliferation activities in general which would include Iran and Libya in addition to North Korea.
Let us not forget that in the confessional statement, Khan is reported to have admitted transferring nuclear technology to Iran between 1989 and 1991, to Libya and North Korea between 1991 and 1997, and to the latter again in 2000. It appears from the foregoing that Khan is denying his proliferation role in the 2000 episode only while implicitly admitting it in case of other transfers.
It means that Khan is not making some general and nebulous allegations against Pakistan’s nuclear establishment but specific ones. This must be grist to the mill of those who are opposed to Pakistan’s nuclear programme. It signifies that, notwithstanding the statement made by the FO spokesperson that the nuclear proliferation issue is a closed chapter, the present episode virtually reopens it.
American congressmen and others who are always itching to have direct access to Khan on the pretext of getting to the bottom of the nuclear smuggling network are likely to use this revelation to promote their anti-Pakistan agenda. Besides, Khan’s outburst has put on the line the credibility of the Pakistani government that always claimed to believe and practice nuclear non-proliferation policy.
Was Khan guided in his confessional statement by the “national interest” as he claims? The answer is that the “national interest” is as dear to him as it was to Musharraf when he staged a mini-coup on November 3, 2007 and sent 60 judges packing.
The unvarnished truth is that he was involved in nuclear smuggling. If this were not the case, he would have never made the confessional statement, the ‘national interest’ argument notwithstanding. The fact of the matter is that Khan has struck because he knows that the army’s and Musharraf’s stock is very low with the public; and that this is an opportune moment to regain the public’s esteem as evidenced by the following statement:
“People still respect me, and if anyone has any doubts and thinks himself more popular, he should go with me to Aabpara or Raja Bazaar. You can cut my nose if his [Musharraf’s] clothes remain untorn.”
Another reason why he has made this frontal attack against the nuclear establishment is that he feels that it is vulnerable. This is so because he knows that the West is not satisfied with the details supplied to it on the nuclear proliferation issue generally and his 2004 “debriefing” in particular.
Taking advantage of this weakness, he has decided to hit back with specific details by divulging that the proliferation incident took place in 2000.
Why has Khan acted like a bull in a china shop? Many critics blame the Pakistani government for pushing him to the wall. They contend that it did not fulfil the promises made to him. For example, they say that he was held incommunicado for over four years and was not allowed to lead the life of a normal citizen. Apart from the security argument, the government on its part justifies its actions on the ground that whenever he was given freedom, he abused it. Gen Kidwai of SPD cites the example of how, contrary to the agreement, in a short span of time he gave twenty interviews to international agencies when he was allowed to use a cell phone.
Notwithstanding the above controversy, the fact remains that Khan is an ambitious man. Through years of media manipulation, he succeeded in building his image as the “father of the atom bomb” and the “benefactor of Pakistan”. He harboured the ambition of becoming President of Pakistan one day. Following his house arrest, his supporters argued that whereas India honoured its ace scientist Abul Kalam by making him president, Musharraf humiliated the “benefactor of Pakistan”.
Now what he is trying to do is not just to get his freedom back but to rehabilitate himself to the position that he enjoyed previously. Will he succeed? Honestly speaking, in a country where looters of the nation’s wealth not only get rehabilitated but also become its honourable rulers, everything is possible.
The writer is a former dean of social sciences at the Quaid-i-Azam University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Source: Daily Times, 16/7/2008