Over the past two years, Pakistan’s culture of denial had produced a surreal nuclear theater of the absurd. Any suggestion Pakistan’s nuclear establishment was less than a paragon of nonproliferation probity was deemed beyond contempt. The father of the country’s nuclear arsenal, Abdul Qadeer Khan (AQK), had been elevated to the Islamic equivalent of sainthood.
After the Prophet and Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of the Pakistani state 55 years ago, AQK was a nonpareil. AQK and his team of nuclear scientists are devout Muslim fundamentalists. But this, in turn, led AQK to pursue a hidden agenda. Even though a Sunni, AQK was nonetheless awed by the politico-religious revolution in Iran in 1979. The late President Zia ul-Haq who ruled Pakistan as a military dictator for 11 years (1977-88), also wanted his country to live under strict Islamic law (Sharia) and gave orders AQK and his team of scientists and engineers at the Khan Research Laboratories (KRL) were to be given top priority for anything they required.
In early 2001, U.S. intelligence began suspecting AQK and President Pervez Musharraf were not on the same page. In March that same year, Mr. Musharraf relieved AQK and his top scientist of direct control of the nuclear facilities. They were made nuclear advisers to the office of the president. But the nuclear horse had long bolted the Pakistani barn, surreptitiously crossing the Iranian border in 1988 to help the ayatollah’s theocracy develop another Islamic bomb.
For the past two years, Mr. Musharraf suspected AQK was free-lancing his nuclear assets, but the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency kept assuring him nothing was amiss. That was hardly surprising. ISI and AQK have worked hand in glove since the very beginning of Pakistan’s secret nuclear weapons program.
The Libyan dictator’s decision to take the secret wraps off his own nuclear weapons program and dismantle it under international inspection was a boon to IAEA’s nuclear inspectors. Suddenly, Col. Moammar Gadhafi, suitably impressed by U.S. military capabilities in Iraq, had no compunction about leaking secrets that led to a Pakistani and Iranian connection. Libya over the years had given Pakistan about $100 million for know-how — and international nuclear black market connections — on centrifuges to enrich uranium to weapons grade quality. The technology, according to IAEA, was the same in Libya and Iran, which in turn had obtained it from AQK and his team. AQK had stolen the entire plan for a centrifuge facility where he had worked in the Netherlands.
Pakistan’s transfer of nuclear secrets to North Korea did not come under the rubric of an Islamist bomb. It was a straight exchange for the Korean missiles Pakistan needed as delivery vehicles for its nuclear weapons.
Speaking at the World Economic Forum, Mr. Musharraf conceded what he had long denied. Pakistan’s top nuclear scientists had provided nuclear assistance to Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The reaction in Pakistan was predictable. “Busharraf,” as his legions of Pakistani detractors and enemies mock him, had buckled yet again under U.S. pressure.
Pakistan’s secrets were unraveling like a knitting ball of wool that falls to the floor. A former army chief of staff, Gen. Aslam Beg, and a former ISI chief, Gen. Hamid Gul, are fundamentalists who have backed AQK’s nuclear grand design.
Mr. Musharraf’s inclination is to pick up the ball and rewind the wool. Trials for treason of AQK or any of his top nuclear scientists would not only trigger a nationwide upheaval by MMA, a coalition of six politico-military parties that now govern two of Pakistan’s four provinces, but dangerous splits in ISI and the all-powerful military establishment.
Mr. Musharraf had trouble making himself heard in parliament last month when MMA and other parties jeered him throughout his 40-minute plea to moderates “to wage jihad against extremism.” He warned lawmakers against an “intolerant society” that is giving Pakistan “a negative image.” His blunt language was music only to American and Indian ears.
The army engineered the ouster of Benazir Bhutto as prime minister in 1990 because she tried to get a handle on Pakistan’s nuclear program. Since Mr. Musharraf took over in October 1999, much clandestine nuclear activity by the country’s Islamist scientists and engineers has been carried out by giving the president plausible deniability.
He did not know, for instance, prior to the ouster of the Taliban by U.S. forces in October 2001, that two nuclear experts had traveled to Kandahar to confer with Mullah Omar, the Taliban chief, and Osama bin Laden. When the story leaked, the government quickly explained they were in Afghanistan to offer expertise for an agricultural project. And when journalists tried to interview them, they were suddenly on temporary duty in Burma — and therefore beyond anyone’s reach. The scuttlebutt in Islamabad is they went to Kandahar to teach al Qaeda how to engineer “a dirty radiation bomb,” conventional explosives wrapped around fissionable material.
Even though Pakistani authorities detained a dozen nuclear experts for extensive “debriefings,” the temptation for time-tested, but not time-proven, denials resurfaced at week’s end. The blame was now assigned to an international black market in nuclear bomb-making technology — and one or two Pakistani experts let filthy lucre get the better of them. Muhammad Farooq, AQK’s top assistant in charge of foreign procurement, was assigned the fall guy role. But Mr. Farooq wasn’t prepared to do the honors. He, in turn, fingered AQK — and the country gasped.
Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of Pakistan’s nukes, is worshipped by most Pakistanis, but Mr. Musharraf has now begun chipping at the pedestal. The Pakistani president has survived six assassination plots and two recent attempts on his life within 11 days. He has now authorized leaks about AQK’s nuclear free-lancing in Iran and Libya. The leaks even suggested the saintly figure of AQK had filled his own pockets, too. Whether Mr. Musharraf is fearless or foolhardy remains to be determined.
Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor at large of The Washington Times and of United Press International.