Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan, the “father” of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme and the man who relentlessly pursued it through clandestine means and methods for decades, has finally admitted in a written statement that he oversaw its further clandestine spread to at least three other countries. Official Pakistan, which for years insisted that its nuclear weapons programme is tightly controlled and completely secure, is now claiming that nuclear trade has been made into a private enterprise by some of its national heroes! Extensive evidence has emerged in the public domain about detailed plans for enrichment of uranium for bomb making having been transferred from Pakistan to a number of countries along with a new version of a “yellow pages” directory of networks from Malaysia to Europe and North America for supply of materials and components.
What is of critical importance is not only the world’s most adventurous multinational nuclear proliferation but the reason Khan has put forward for his activities. Pakistani officials are saying that, contrary to earlier assumptions, he did not do so for money, but that he “was motivated enough to make other Islamic countries nuclear powers also” and reduce pressure on Pakistan. This may be an effort to garner public support from Islamic parties and countries. It also harks back to Bhutto’s notion of the “Islamic Bomb” for its Um’mah. The only exception known so far is the supply of nuclear weapon making technology to North Korea for strategic reasons in exchange for long-range ballistic missiles for nuclear weapon delivery.
Islamism has been deepening in Pakistan for three decades. Its concept of “strategic depth”, especially to its west, led to intervention in Afghanistan to control Kabul through covert Mujahideen operations. Strategic depth made no sense in modern conventional military terms. But in the context of Islamic jihad, as an instrument of politics by other means in Clausewitzean terms, it incorporated deadly logic, especially when the Holy Quran was invoked under General Zia ul-Haq to justify terrorism. To this has been added the strategic depth of an “Islamic Bomb” whose wherewithal is controlled by Pakistan. One look at the map would show that Pakistan’s Islamic nuclear mushroom covers the whole of West Asia with what Mansoor Ijaz terms as the “North Korean-made missiles armed with a Chinese-made nuclear device assembled in Islamabad’s nuclear labs whose fuel came from gas centrifuges sold by Pakistan’s rogue Islamists.” Small wonder Al-Qaeda, which received extensive support from Pakistan and its most radical surrogate, the Taliban, boasted it could make a “dirty” nuclear bomb.
The incontrovertible truth is that Pakistan’s nuclear programme in every aspect has been, and remains, under the firm and total control of its army at least since 1977; even its navy and air force have little role in it. Its clandestine nature relied on building a black market largely managed by trusted senior army (and ISI) officers and senior scientists in the nuclear establishment. Such people have undoubtedly been under a strong security and intelligence cover as much for their safety as to keep an eye on them. With a flourishing $2 billion-plus annual narcotics trade, and banks like the former Dubai-based Pakistani-owned “Outlaw Bank”, the BCCI (Bank of Credit and Commerce International), and the Mehran Bank to manage the black market in narcotics, nuclear trade and tools for terrorism, there was obviously no dearth of unaccounted funds for the purpose. General Aslam Beg, the army chief in late 1980s who controlled the nuclear programme, later publicly acknowledged receipt of hundreds of crores of unaccounted funds which he passed on to the ISI and President Ghulam Ishaq Khan.
The bulk of transfer of nuclear technology and networking of components supply for a weapons programme to Libya and other countries took place in the late 1980s and early 1990s when Aslam Beg was in full control of the programme. He has been questioned. But it is apparent that nuclear trade continued under the Musharraf regime. In 2002 a Pakistani military aircraft carried stuff from North Korea. It is likely that A.Q. Khan’s special “furniture” reportedly transported by Pakistan Air Force to Libya in 2000 was a cover for continuing supplies, especially since Muhammad Farooq, the nuclear laboratory’s head of oversees trade, accompanied the consignment.
Pakistan has confronted the world with its most serious challenge in limiting proliferation. But the one country which should have spearheaded an objective approach to what must be the biggest, most dangerous and most dramatic spread of nuclear weapons technology since the bomb was invented has already signalled closure in this inconvenient chapter as long as Pakistan takes some legal action against somebody. The White House spokesman said last week that spread of nuclear weapons technology from Pakistan (to states the US has listed as rogue and/or part of the axis of evil) was “part of the past, and the past is past.” Thereby the US has once again demonstrated that its short-term interests over-ride its commitment to non-proliferation. It might be recalled that in 1980-81 negotiations with Pakistan army’s vice chief, Lt Gen K.M. Arif, Washington had agreed to allow Pakistan’s clandestine nuclear weapon programme in return for its role as a frontline state vis-a-vis Afghanistan!
The proliferation chain, according to US experts, starts from China to Pakistan, and then extends to North Korea, Libya and Iran, with Turkey and Saudi Arabia being suspected of ambitions to join the chain. There could be others — after all, we don’t know what we don’t know! Existing non-proliferation regimes built around the NPT reached their apogee some time ago and now produce only diminishing returns. Still, the case for effective export controls is strong. But their enforcement would remain a key uncertainty till breakout is discovered. For example, where states and semi-state actors decide to proliferate to other countries, like Pakistan has been doing, and/or turn a blind eye to clandestine programmes, like the US did in the case of Pakistan in the 1980s, how can such export controls be adequate in stopping proliferation? There is also a need to ensure that continuing adverse consequences of technology do not hamper techno-economic development in responsible states at least.