VIEW: Burying the matter — Moeed Yusuf

The AQ Khan affair will of course have to be dealt with. But that should not be the purpose of such oversight. The real value would be to ensure that all potential loopholes that may cause a repeat of the proliferation scandal are plugged

Pakistan finds itself in a renewed nuclear controversy. Dr AQ Khan has come out and implicated President Pervez Musharraf and, by implication, the state of Pakistan in the proliferation scandal.

Dr Khan is squarely in the wrong for coming out and speaking against Musharraf. His contention is that he did not do what he confessed to in his infamous apology, i.e. transfer nuclear hardware and technology on his own.

Simply put, he is bluffing. The fact is that his role in the global non-proliferation network was under scrutiny of various foreign intelligence agencies since the late-1990s. Today, the details of his activities are well documented. He has clearly been singled out by three IAEA reports. Moreover, I am aware of at least eight serious scholarly works that provide elaborate details of the nuclear black market and Dr Khan’s role in it. Each one of them lays the blame for proliferation on Dr Khan, not the Pakistani state.

In short, AQ Khan’s guilt has been proven beyond doubt.

Next, Dr Khan says that he is still acting in the national interest. This is absurd. Even if one were to hypothetically suppose that what he has alleged is the truth, he had to have known that stirring the controversy would embarrass the state and possibly result in a volley of new concerns being bombarded at Islamabad from external quarters. Even worse, he is politicking when his allegations find no empirical proof in reality.

Let us now examine the role of the state.

In a recent article, Pakistan People’s Party spokesperson Farhatullah Babar (“Revisiting the NCA”, The News, July 15) presented a view representative of those who question the state’s inability to spot AQ Khan’s activities. While the argument is that the National Command Authority (NCA) has proven inept at countering proliferation, the implication that most draw from such commentaries is that the state may have deliberately turned a blind eye to proliferation.

Such views are absolutely justified in that the state is guilty of huge oversight during the 1990s. The state’s position is indefensible on this count. However, the connection between this oversight and deliberate connivance of the state is clearly a stretch.

AQ Khan’s ability to proliferate was not an outcome of any institutionalised collusion by the state. Instead, the very protocol that the state knowingly built around the nuclear programme retained an overriding focus on preventing possible breach of secrecy. Pakistan had no formal command and control infrastructure; the requirement of keeping all operations secret trumped any security concerns throughout the AQ Khan era at KRL.

This set up was a direct outcome of the nature of Pakistan’s nuclear programme and the extreme paranoia that surrounded the defence establishment regarding the potential sabotage of the capability. As it stood, the entire framework revolved around AQ Khan who was virtually unmonitored and fully trusted (the body designated to provide oversight and on-site security reported to him; he himself was under no check). Hardly anyone else was privy to complete information of KRL’s activities.

Moreover, few realise that kind of leverage Dr Khan had managed courtesy of the extremely thin nuclear expertise in the country and coupled with his ever charming personality that had convinced the defence establishment at all times (none of whom remotely understood the technicalities of the programme) that he remained indispensable.

As for the NCA’s ineptness, the Authority was set up in 2000. By late-1999, intelligence reports about AQ Khan’s proliferation activities had started to trickle in and led to his ouster in 2001. Indeed, there are objective reports that point to proliferation activities continuing till 2002. However, these were traced to the AQ Khan network, not Pakistan. Virtually all known shipments in this period originated outside Pakistan and were headed for other countries.

Next, Musharraf’s admission in his memoirs that CIA Director George Tenet confronted him with evidence on Dr Khan in 2003 and that it came as a rude awakening has raised many eyebrows. The question is obvious: if the NCA had existed since 2000, why had they not spotted these activities? Implication: the state must have been involved.

The fact is that Pakistani intelligence was on the AQ Khan case since 2000 and had managed to begin putting together pieces of the puzzle shortly thereafter. However, given the virtual blank during the 1990s, at best they could have gathered patchy information. By 2003, there was evidence of leakage; it was simply not enough to get a clear picture.

Therefore, it is conceivable that the revelation to Musharraf both embarrassed and shocked him. But the reason for this embarrassment would have been the extent of Khan’s activities, not the fact that he was involved (which was already known).

That said, it is absurd to fault the NCA for not having apprised the civilians of these activities (Farhatullah Babar’s article raises a concern to this effect). This is both because Gen Musharraf was in charge at the time (he has himself said that the NCA was his creation) and the civilians operated under his watch, parliament notwithstanding. Moreover, the Pakistani defence establishment had determined, rightly in my view, that the most prudent way to deal with the problem was to conduct private investigations while keeping the matter under the radar.

Farhatullah Babar makes one very apt suggestion, i.e. to bring the NCA and the Strategic Plans Division (SPD) up for discussion in the National Assembly and Senate’s Defence Committees (on camera). This is an important and much overdue move. I see this as an imperative not merely to satisfy the civilian supremacy rhetoric but as a means of instilling confidence in the public representatives that the nuclear establishment continues to strive for a robust and secure arsenal.

Needless to mention, if there are any genuine snags in the functioning of the NCA that remain unearthed due to the secrecy that surrounds the organisation, it is in the state’s interest to expose these in such proceedings and seek immediate correction.

To be useful, the focus of any such exercise would have to remain futuristic. The AQ Khan affair will of course have to be dealt with. But that should not be the purpose of such oversight. The real value would be to ensure that all potential loopholes that may cause a repeat of the proliferation scandal are plugged. While the SPD has already made remarkable progress (the new protocols have been lauded by even the most circumspect foreign quarters), further improvement in these protocols should remain the prime interest of the civilian masters. This will also send a positive signal to western quarters who continue to watch the programme closely.

Let me end by emphasising that the AQ Khan affair needs to find a permanent internal solution. Dr Khan’s recent outburst suggests that he is not content with the current arrangement. While the state is correct in arguing that the stakes are simply too high to let Dr Khan operate as an ordinary citizen, Dr Khan has a technicality going in his favour: he was pardoned by the president; once done, legally he cannot be held responsible for proliferation.

Ultimately, both sides have to realise that the optimal solution is to bury this matter. But for that to happen, neither can be antagonised. Dr Khan must be brought on the same wavelength as the state. Islamabad must take the initiative to negotiate — not coerce — Dr Khan to find a middle ground which is acceptable to both sides as the permanent ceasefire line. His demeanour in the past month suggests that the Musharraf regime failed to do so.

The writer is a research fellow at the Strategic and Economic Policy Research (Pvt Ltd.) in Islamabad and a regular contributor to The Friday Times. He has written extensively on nuclear issues

Source: Daily Times, 6/8/2008

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