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Khan, scapegoat or magician extraordinary?

Khan, scapegoat or magician extraordinary?

Author: Ayaz Amir
Publication: Dawn
Date: February 6, 2004

The nation is catching glimpses of some other facets of Dr A. Q. Khan's multi-dimensional personality. It now transpires he is not only the architect of Pakistan's uranium enrichment capability but also one of the great voodoo artists of this or the previous century. Someone who peddled nuclear secrets and blueprints left and right, without anyone in Pakistan's all-seeing intelligence services ever catching him.

In his confessional statement made on state TV, accepting full responsibility for proliferation, Khan hasn't named any country. But the international charge sheet circulating against Pakistan suggests his reach extended to Libya, Iran and, on the other side of the compass, North Korea.

Like a master-criminal (Blofeld?) from a James Bond movie, he supplied these countries with nuclear blueprints, and in one or two cases (we are told) even with centrifuges, completely fooling the heavy security system around Khan Research Laboratories, the heart of Pakistan's nuclear programme.

Khan as father of the Pakistani bomb is a familiar icon. Khan as super-duper secret agent distributing nuclear secrets all on his own is a new one for most Pakistanis. Students of literature might count this as a more dazzling achievement than his bomb-making.

But Khan adds a mysterious twist to his confession. He says he did all this "in good faith". Whatever does this mean? We had Gen Musharraf's word for it, given to CNN, that some individuals had proliferated for "personal financial gain". Khan in his confession makes no mention of any mercenary motive.

So if this now is the latest version of the official truth, the natural question arising is that if nuclear secrets were passed in good faith what was the need for Khan to be so surreptitious about the whole thing? Or are we suggesting his were the acts of a solitary fanatic doing what he did for the greater glory of Islam?

The North Korean angle, however, doesn't fit the "glory of Islam" line. What was Khan doing with North Korea? Or were the guardians of Pakistan's nuclear capability in the dark about that too? It is widely suspected Khan had some sort of a North Korean connection. What did intelligence specialists in Islamabad think this connection was for? To promote cultural exchanges?

After Khan's confession it would have been natural if he were denounced for betraying the nation's trust. But public reaction (read the papers) is altogether different: that by accepting blame Khan has done the nation one more service. Judging from this, my guess is the whole confession affair will be taken as the Pakistani version of the Hutton Report - whitewashing the guardians and making a sacrificial lamb of Khan.

Sacrificing Khan is a small price to pay if it saves Pakistan's nuke capability. But do we really take the Yanks to be so dumb? Will they take Khan's confession at face value that he was the lone ranger of proliferation?

In the register of nuclear crimes, the one unpardonable sin is proliferation, and Pakistan, Khan or no Khan, stands accused of that. Khan's confession can be played on TV a thousand times but sceptics will still ask whether he could have proliferated without official support or connivance.

Even if the confession story is bought (an unlikely possibility), questions are bound to be asked whether a country incapable of guarding nuclear secrets can be trusted with nuclear weapons.

We may fervently hope a line has been drawn under this affair. But we shouldn't forget nuclear memories are long and weapons of mass destruction top the western agenda. Sooner or later we'll have to face this issue again because, in the words of Urdu columnist Abbas Athar, from an atomic power we have become an atomic problem.

Today we are useful to the United States as we do its bidding for the pacification of Afghanistan. This is the only reason we haven't been publicly whipped on the proliferation issue. The Americans don't want to make things more difficult for their good friend Pervez Musharraf. Also, with their hands full in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Bush's re-election becoming trickier, they don't want to add to their problems.

But just wait until our usefulness ends. Our own confessions will then be thrust on us and we'll be asked - in icy tones, you bet - what we propose doing about our 'leaky' nuclear programme.

Suppose in the fullness of time the US takes the matter before the UN Security Council and we are asked to open up our uranium enrichment labs for inspection, what will we do? Our protestations that we are not a signatory to the Non-proliferation Treaty won't cut much ice then because we'll be told the charge of proliferation against us stands proven.

The US has never liked Pakistan's nuke capability. (Do we need to write a treatise on the subject?) So its larger aim was never just to get Khan who is already history and probably has seen his last centrifuge. It was always to de-nuke Pakistan. Far from resisting these designs, we have abetted them by going to inordinate lengths to write, in our own hand, the charge sheet against Pakistan.

Why? Because we are afraid not so much of real and present dangers as of the unknown. It's not just a question of succumbing to American pressure. That would be easy enough to understand. We've succumbed to self-invented fears magnified by a vivid imagination. The new word for this tendency is realism.

So what should Pakistan have done? We should have protected Khan even if he was guilty of proliferation charges. We should have used our services in Afghanistan as a trading chip to ward off American pressure and, summoning a bit of nerve, to tell the Americans that the past was the past and should be allowed to bury its dead. By thus protecting Khan we would have been protecting ourselves.

Does Pakistan have a nuclear past? Of course it does. There was no other way Pakistan could have started, much less completed, its uranium enrichment programme. We shopped for nuclear materials through shady middlemen and secretive dealers. Were dubious deals involving third countries struck along the way? The possibility can't be ruled out altogether.

But just as madams with a past don't flaunt their past, it hasn't served Pakistan's interests to go about uncovering its nuclear past in such a blithe manner.

Khan is not a carbuncle on the nation's side that you can lance and say, ah, the nation's health is restored. More than being the architect of Pakistan's bomb, he stood for a national mood revelling in the possession of the bomb and convinced that Pakistan had a destiny to fulfil. (Much like Israel, incidentally, but with not a tenth of Israel's resolve and ingenuity.) Call this madness or whatever, but this was a mood which held Pakistan in thrall for a long time.

Qadeer Khan's past activities are therefore woven into Pakistan's memory and trying to de-link the two is an exercise in futility. It's also an exercise in some dishonesty for what it shows is a whole phalanx of once-eminent men scurrying for cover as the blame for a large slice of national history is shouldered by one individual.

We wanted the bomb so badly we made Khan Emperor of Kahuta. Emperors make mistakes but then they are not alone in making them. In trying to convince the world he acted on his own, we may save a skin or two but at the cost of imperilling the future of what we once considered our most sacred possession. This choice made in a moment of national weakness is likely to haunt Pakistan for years to come.

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