12:00 AM, July 28, 2008 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, July 28, 2008


The mystery of nuclear proliferation

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M. Abdul Hafiz

IN 2004, a scandal originating from the nuclear Shangrila of Pakistan's Kahuta was first spotted by the IAEA, the international nuclear watchdog. It exploded like a bombshell, and an embarrassed Pakistani establishment quickly swept the whole shady affair by making Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, the nuclear scientist behind Pakistan's bomb, responsible.
Now, making a volteface, the same man has stirred up fresh controversy with his sensational disclosures while appearing in a television channel after the restrictions imposed on his access to media were relaxed by the newly elected government few weeks ago.
In interviews to foreign media and local television channels, Dr. Qadeer Khan said that the military had played a direct role in transferring centrifuges capable of enriching uranium to North Korea in 2000, alleging that President Musharraf was himself involved in the transfer and had full knowledge of it.
In support of his remarks, he pointed out that it would have been impossible to send sensitive nuclear equipment aboard military or foreign aircraft usually used for the purpose. He regretted that he was made a convenient scapegoat for the sordid affair after being coerced into making a false confession for protecting national interest, and that he was promised freedom in return.
Earlier in the month, government circles were seized with panic that Dr. Khan's revelations would bring new reprisals from the international community, as well as revive concern over Pakistan's exact role in the proliferation and safety of its "strategic assets."
However, fierce denials that Dr. Qadeer's accusations have any factual basis have already begun to come in, although there are few to believe them, because there is no reason to doubt the bits about the generals knowing about, and facilitating, Khan's nuclear shenanigans. Despite the generals' tantrum at the disclosures, to many it's a good thing that no one believes their denials.
For, if the generals are believed on this count, it will mean that the military is so incompetent, so easily duped, so staggeringly clueless that its most prized assets -- nuclear paraphernalia -- could be merrily shipped around the world without its knowledge. According to Dr. Khan's revelation, the military of a nuclear power is at least spared of that slur.
Looking at the issue from a neutral perspective, it cannot but be admitted that, even without his statements in self-defence, he (Dr. Khan) could not have been able to single-handedly transport a centrifuge or any other nuclear parts to North Korea or any other country.
Smuggling such items abroad obviously needed the support and cooperation of a larger ring of participants in the exercise. The possibility of such a ring including intelligence agencies and military personnel were hinted at earlier, but to no avail.
The taboos that still prevent reporting on military involvement in any kind of criminal act have been a key factor in the fact that the many questions lurking in the minds of investigative reporters about the televised confession four years ago couldn't be brought to light. By breaking that taboo, Dr. Qadeer has, in one sense, served a useful purpose.
Yet, it will be difficult for Pakistan's new dispensation to conclusively deal with the issue. The mystery around the scandal has only thickened over the years. There is also the problem of public perception, with Dr. Qadeer built into a national hero by some political parties and presented as such to people -- even though his true role in developing Pakistan's troublesome nuclear bomb is lately being questioned and appears somewhat dubious. But the fact that Dr. Khan enjoys such a status provides him a measure of immunity. Voices are, off late, being raised in Pakistan to not only free him from house arrest but also to rehabilitate him in the society by according him honour due to a hero.
As a result, it is doubtful at this stage that a fresh investigation can be launched to enquire into the extent of his complicity in the proliferation scandal -- notwithstanding the possibility that even Washington may be willing to support such effort.
Many, however, have come to understand that the whole dirty matter is like that, and it is made dirtier by over-churning its ugly details.
It is now rather fashionable in the West to denounce countries like Pakistan for the nuclear leakages to "rouge states" -- totally ignoring the fact the advanced countries, arms dealers and mafia operatives are much more responsible for proliferation activities in spite of umpteen number of sanctions, checks, inspections, restrictions and treaties.
The atomic era has been privy to the growth of nuclear arsenals around the world, especially in Israel, through the most clandestine means, while the Big-5, the self appointed nuclear arbiters, looked the other way.

Brig ( retd) Hafiz is former DG of BIISS.

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