The impact of recent disclosures regarding Pakistan’s nuclear proliferation is for the most part felt globally. But it also has domestic political repercussions for President Pervez Musharraf. Pakistan’s most celebrated nuclear scientist, Abdul Qadeer Khan, recently admitted selling nuclear secrets to North Korea, Iran and Libya. The next day he received a presidential pardon for his confessed activities. And though Mr. Khan said no government officials were involved in the proliferation, Gen. Musharraf remains vulnerable to his people’s anger regarding the whole affair. This vulnerability is significant to the United States, because Pakistan’s stability is in America’s interest.
Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto met this week with editors and reporters from The Washington Times to discuss Gen. Musharraf and the situation in Pakistan. The timing of her media outreach is somewhat telling in and of itself, indicating she currently sees political weakness in him. Mrs. Bhutto, who fled Pakistan under Gen. Musharraf’s regime, was unsparing in her criticism of the president. “It’s obvious that a deal was done,” said Mrs. Bhutto of Mr. Khan’s confession, which cleared the government of complicity and elicited a quick pardon. Mrs. Bhutto said she believes that the scientist was a scapegoat and that Gen. Musharraf has long been aware that the proliferation was occurring. She said that an advertisement that Pakistan’s Ministry of Commerce put out in July 2000 in the country’s “The News” newspaper offering a laundry list of nuclear technology was proof the president must have been aware of the exports.
In an Aug. 3, 2000 article, the Guardian made reference to that ad: “In a full-page newspaper advertisement the Pakistani commerce ministry has published an application form for the export of 11 radioactive substances, including depleted uranium, enriched uranium, plutonium and tritium, and 17 types of equipment, including nuclear power reactors, nuclear research reactors and reactor control systems.” Some Pakistani officials quoted in the Guardian article denied that all the technology offered in the ad was offered by Pakistan.
Mrs. Bhutto and politicians from her party, the Pakistan Peoples’ Party, have the clear intention of keeping the pressure on Gen. Musharraf, and she remains, even from exile, a political force in Pakistan. This political pressure will weaken Gen. Musharraf’s support among mainstream Pakistanis, who are alarmed to see their country exposed internationally as the lead nuclear proliferator. They are also concerned about what impact the proliferation could have on the sustainability of their country’s own nuclear program.
There is also another political dynamic. Islamic fundamentalists have also been enraged at seeing Mr. Khan, the father of the Islamic bomb, so publicly debased on national television. This anger is being squarely focused on Gen. Musharraf.
Though it remains unclear just which Pakistani leaders share blame for nuclear proliferation, Gen. Musharraf is currently the most conspicuous target. This singular blame may not be fair, but it is a political reality. Another political reality is that, for the time being, a stable government led by Gen. Musharraf is in America’s interests.