- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 2, 2004

Pakistan’s nuclear hybrid — half Dr. Strangelove and half Dr. No — was arguably the world’s most dangerous criminal. Abdul Qadeer Khan is the only proliferator of weapons of mass destruction the world has known since the advent of the atomic age in 1945.

Worse, he sold his country’s nuclear secrets for profit to America’s self-avowed enemies — North Korea, Iran and Libya. His motives were also hybrid — both greed and creed.

His Islamist fundamentalist ideology led him to believe it was within his power to make invincible America vincible. As the father of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, he was his country’s most precious asset — and in the Pakistani pantheon of national heroes he was only a whisker below Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of the Pakistani state.

Yet President Pervez Musharraf pardoned the global criminal and allowed him to keep his ill-gotten gains, in return for which Mr. Khan went on national television and said — in English rather than Urdu, the national language — he was truly sorry and had acted strictly alone, unbeknownst to anyone else in the Pakistani government.

If Mr. Musharraf can pardon Mr. Khan, why can’t he pardon Pakistan’s two most important political leaders — Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, both former prime ministers — who are living in exile, and are still the recognized heads of Pakistan’s two principal political parties?

Next to Mr. Khan’s global nuclear Wal-Mart, the corruption charges against Mrs. Bhutto and Mr. Sharif are teensy-weensy. Both these leaders can testify that while they were in power at different times, military officials and scientists approached them seeking permission to export nuclear technology. Tired of being turned down, they went ahead anyway. Clearly, Mr. Khan was not acting on his own.

The only problem with the carefully rehearsed charade is that no one believed the story. Not Mr. Musharraf’s I-had-no-idea disclaimer, nor Mr. Khan’s act of contrition. So why did Mr. Musharraf agree to the giveaway show? The alternative — which would have been to tell the truth — would have been tantamount to scuttling the ship of state. Because it is inconceivable the all-powerful Inter-Services Intelligence spy agency wasn’t aware of Mr. Khan’s six trips to the hermit communist kingdom of North Korea.

Mr. Khan was Pakistan’s most precious national asset, and ISI and ranking military officers were in charge of protecting the man who owned the country’s crown jewels and who could be kidnapped or gunned down at anytime. What is more than likely is that ISI knew about Mr. Khan’s nuclear rackets but didn’t tell Mr. Musharraf because of the Pakistani leader’s close rapport with U.S. President Bush.

Mr. Musharraf claimed the first specific details of Mr. Khan’s global operations came from U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and Gen. John Abizaid, head of U.S. Central Command, when they called on him last October. But Mr. Khan begun spinning his worldwide web of nuclear skullduggery 18 years ago, at the height of the war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, while the previous military dictator, Gen. Zia ul-Haq, was in power. His network of intermediaries stretched from Malaysia to Pakistan to Dubai, Istanbul, Tripoli and Casablanca and a small Swiss town, and employed nationals from Asia, the Middle East, North Africa and Europe.

It is becoming increasingly obvious Mr. Khan’s clandestine activities paralleled closely the actions of several Pakistani governments. In 1984, for example, a partnership was concluded between Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization and Pakistan’s Atomic Energy Commission. Also in 1984, Gnadi Mohammad Mragih, director of Iran’s Nuclear Technology Center in Isfahan, visited Pakistan’s super-secret Kahuta nuclear complex to meet with Mr. Khan.

In 1991, no less than three Iranian delegations came to Kahuta. An Iranian general who commanded the Iranian Revolutionary Guards led one of them. Again in 1991, the Pakistani chief of army staff went to Iran to sign a secret protocol on uranium enrichment technology.

Pakistan’s nuclear ambitions are invariably portrayed as an answer to India’s first nuclear test explosion in 1974. But the Maldon Institute reminds us their origin predates India’s big bang. Pakistan’s massive military defeat by Indian forces in 1971 was the energizer. This was when India rolled up East Pakistan and Bangladesh won its war of national liberation.

Following Pakistan’s humiliation, Prime Minister Ali Bhutto (Benazir’s father who was executed by President Zia) vowed Pakistanis would “eat grass if necessary” to develop nuclear weapons. Mr. Bhutto asked Mr. Khan, an engineer by training, to return home from the Netherlands to head the program. He did so, armed with stolen Dutch plans for a uranium enrichment plant.

Since then, Mr. Khan has served seven successive governments that always gave him and his nuclear efforts top priority for funds and materials. At a conference of Islamic states in 1974, Mr. Bhutto announced Pakistan would produce an “Islamic bomb,” which would be the foundation for Islamic countries to acquire strategic military capacities to counter other nuclear weapons powers.

Pakistani leaders denied time and again the country had a nuclear weapons program — until 1998, when Mr. Sharif declared Pakistan a nuclear power, punctuated with five nuclear bomb tests that followed five Indian bangs the week before.

It is inconceivable Mr. Khan, for three decades, could have indulged in such extensive nuclear proliferation without the knowledge and acquiescence of ISI and the military high command. Mr. Musharraf was army chief of staff prior to seizing the presidency in October 1999.

What did Mr. Musharraf know — and when did he know it — are the kind of lese-majeste questions Pakistani journalists who wish to stay healthy don’t ask.

Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor at large of The Washington Times and of United Press International.

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