Questions After A.Q. Khan's Resurfacing

Published: Fri 12 Jun 2009 12:00 PM
Questions After A.Q. Khan's Resurfacing
by J. Sri Raman,
t r u t h o u t | Perspective
"Recently there have been unconfirmed rumors of a rollback in Pakistan's nuclear program, but all is not yet lost. If our leaders have our national interests at heart above all else, much can be achieved, but it requires commitment, honesty of purpose, efficiency, dedication and foresight."
That may sound like an opposition leader in Pakistan. But, no, it was not former Prime Minster Nawaz Sharif, under whom the country went for its nuclear-weapon tests over a decade ago. Nor former President Pervez Musharraf, angling for the right issue in an attempt at a political comeback. The advice on nuclear policy to the rulers in Islamabad came from Abdul Qadeer Khan, a notorious "proliferator" abroad but still a "national hero" to a large number of Pakistanis.
A.Q. Khan made the statement in a newspaper article on the eve of May 28, the 11th anniversary of the tests conducted on the Chagai hills of Baluchistan, officially celebrated as the Youm-e-Takbeer (roughly translatable as the Day of God's Greatness). His call raised - or should have raised - two sets of questions.
The provocation for the first series of questions was the fact that Khan was speaking, in public and forthrightly, on this subject at all. When the 72-year-old scientist was released in February 2009 from years of house arrest, it may be recalled, there was much speculation about his "secret agreement" with Islamabad. The Pakistani media, however, said the agreement "obviously" forbade Khan from expressing himself or engaging with the nuclear issue in any way.
Obviously now, the agreement either never existed or has been altered significantly. If it has been, why has his role as a mascot of nuclear militarism for the nation been revived? Has this been done without the winking consent of influential quarters in Washington or the Pentagon?
Or without the connivance - even complicity - of the Pakistani army?
Khan himself is quite used to official adoration alternating with displays of disapproval intended for international consumption. In the same article, he recalled not only his promise of a Pakistani bomb in 1984 to former military dictator Zia ul-Haq, but also the effusive encouragement he received from the country's last usurper in uniform.
Khan quotes Pervez Musharraf as declaring in a speech of March 27, 2001: "This nation is grateful to you for what you have done for us, today and for all times to come. You are our national hero and an inspiration to our future generations." After a string of superlatives, the general added: "These men of science, these Mujahids, have put Pakistan in the exclusive nuclear club. They have made Islamic nations proud. They ... have shown that, when we want to, we can move mountains and indeed change their color." That last bit was an allusion to the observation of some eyewitnesses that the blasts of 11 years ago turned the Chagai site white.
The same Musharraf hastened to present himself as a staunch anti-proliferator in the wake of 9/11. He placed Khan under house arrest, where he stayed even after a presidential pardon in 2004. Khan's quotation of the general was perhaps meant to suggest a similar change of heart in the current rulers of the country.
The second set of questions concerns what Khan was talking about. So far, there has been no official talk, or any opposition hint, about plans for a "rollback" of Pakistan's strategic nuclear program. Was the semi-rehabilitated scientist speaking of efforts to stop the "expansion" of the program, of which much has been heard in recent days?
Notably, the resurfacing of Khan followed a diplomatic victory declared by Pakistan. Washington had earlier linked its aid to Pakistan to conditions relating to Khan and India. It had wanted the right to interrogate the scientist about his past as a proliferatror and a written guarantee that the aid would not be used against India. Before Khan was to issue his clarion call, the Foreign Office in Islamabad formally announced: "The US has dropped the demands for access to nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan and India's name from the aid bill because of Pakistan's concerns."
The change of heart in Washington came just about a month after US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in Baghdad on April 25: "One of our concerns ... is that if the worst, the unthinkable, were to happen, and this advancing Taliban ... were to essentially topple the government for failure to beat them back, then they would have the keys to the nuclear arsenal of Pakistan.... We can't even contemplate that." The concern has remained, even after President Barack Obama's statement of April 29: "I feel confident that nuclear arsenal (Pakistan's) will remain out of militant hands."
The Congressional Research Service (CRS), a research wing of the US Congress, chose the Chagai anniversary to confirm reports that Pakistan was expanding its nuclear arsenal. The CRS said: "Pakistan's nuclear arsenal consists of approximately 60 nuclear warheads. It continues fissile material production for weapons, and is adding to its weapons production facilities and delivery vehicles." Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, at a Congressional hearing on May 14, had confirmed that the US had "evidence" of the expansion plans. The "evidence" consisted of satellite images pointing to construction of additional nuclear reactors.
There is no doubt at all about the dire implications of such plans for regional peace. Khan illustrated the priorities of Pakistan's nuclear militarists when he told a television channel on May 28 that "India will not dare to challenge Pakistan owing to Pakistan's nuclear capability" and urged the government "to make Pakistan a strongest country in the world." The CRS report noted that Pakistan had pledged no-first-use against non-nuclear-weapon states, but had not ruled out first -use against a nuclear-armed aggressor that attacks Pakistan - for example, India. The report also said that Pakistan had addressed issues of survivability in a possible nuclear conflict through a second-strike capability.
Prospects of an accelerated nuclear arms race in South Asia have also been raised by an offer from France to Pakistan. Islamabad claimed on May 15 that French President Nicolas Sarkozy told Pakistani counterpart Asif Ali Zardari that "he wanted the Muslim country to have a wide-ranging deal to buy nuclear equipment like the one obtained by its rival India." Influential sections in Pakistan's establishment are pressing for a similar deal with China in order to meet the challenge of the US-India nuclear deal.
The issue is related also to the anti-Taliban military offensive in Pakistan, amidst which May 28 was marked this time. Ahmed Rashid, author of the best-selling "Taliban and Descent into Chaos," writes: "Bush's signing of the nuclear deal with India last year was the last straw for the Pakistani army. In military and public thinking, Pakistan was seen as sacrificing some two thousand soldiers in the war on terror on behalf of the Americans, while in return the Americans were recognizing the legitimacy of India's nuclear weapons program. Pakistan's nuclear weapons got no such acceptance...."
India, for its part, has no dearth of nuclear militarists to promote this diabolical madness. They may not have had time enough in the midst of a general election campaign to celebrate May 11, the 11th anniversary of India's nuclear-weapon tests. But that did not prevent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Lal Krishna Advani from hailing it as "a historic day" when "India showcased its nuclear prowess to the whole world." Officially, it was marked as the National Technology Day, with scientists and sundry politicians indulging in inanities about the bomb being a harbinger of a better tomorrow for India's impoverished billion. The far right, humbled in the election, will no doubt see hope for its future in the attempt at revival of Pakistan's nuclear nationalism.
Pakistan's anti-nuclear-weapon scientist Pervez Hoodbhoy spoke for the peace movements in both countries, when he wrote on the same May 28: "It is time for Pakistan to become part of the current global move against nuclear weapons. India - which had thrust nuclearization upon an initially unwilling Pakistan - is morally obliged to lead. Both must announce that they will not produce more fissile material to make yet more bombs. Both must drop insane plans to expand their nuclear arsenals."
He added: "Eleven years ago, a few Pakistanis and Indians had argued that the bomb would bring no security, no peace. They were condemned as traitors and sellouts by their fellow citizens. But each passing year shows just how right we were."
The resurfacing of Khan, and all that the move may represent, will not prove the peace-loving people of South Asia wrong.
A freelance journalist and a peace activist in India, J. Sri Raman is the author of "Flashpoint" (Common Courage Press, USA). He is a regular contributor to Truthout.

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