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Radioactive nation: Opinion

Abdul Qadir Khan, publicly confessing on February 4 that he had clandestinely sent nuclear weapons material and information about nuclear weapons technology to foreign countries, has caught intense public attention. The substance of the concession should not come as a surprise to India, the United States or others.

india Updated: Feb 17, 2004 11:05 IST

Abdul Qadir Khan, publicly confessing on February 4 that he had clandestinely sent nuclear weapons material and information about nuclear weapons technology to foreign countries, has caught intense public attention. The substance of the concession should not come as a surprise to India, the United States or others.

Nuclear weapons and their delivery systems falling into the hands of non-State actors and terrorist groups has been a matter of concern for the international community since the disintegration of the Soviet Union. The concern of the US in this regard became greater after September 11, 2001. Washington focused particularly on Islamic countries like Iran and Libya, which were interested in acquiring nuclear weapons for nearly three decades.

American anxieties about non-State actors sharing such WMDs increased because the personality profiles of cadres of the various terrorist groups indicated that many of them were educated and tech-savvy. CIA Director George Tenet, addressing Georgetown University in Washington early this month, confirmed that the CIA has been engaged in investigative activities to unravel clandestine activities of horizontal proliferation of nuclear weapons by countries like Pakistan, North Korea, China.

Tenet stated that investigations led to the discovery of a wide network of commercial companies’ front organisations, and State agencies of these countries engaged in the illegal transfer of nuclear weapons material and nuclear technology stretching from West Europe to North America to Malaysia and North Korea in south-eastern and eastern Asia. The first to be caught in the investigative net prompted by the US were senior scientists engaged in Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme working under Khan at the Kahuta nuclear facilities — A.Q. Khan Nuclear Laboratories — near Islamabad. The trail led the investigators to Khan himself.

Investigations revealed the Pakistani nuclear weapons establishment exported weapons grade nuclear material, metallurgical components and engineering items to Libya and Iran. Similar exports were made to North Korea in exchange for the assistance that Pyongyang provided to Islamabad to develop its military missile capacities. Khan also created a network of engineering and commercial organisations in Pakistan, Malaysia and in the Gulf. Reports indicate that a Malaysian oil and gas company supplied high quality nuclear components to Libya. These exports were made by a company, SCOMI Precision Engineering, based in Selangor in Malaysia, whose largest shareholder happens to be the Malaysian PM, Bidawi Kamaluddin Abdulla.

The company exported centrifuges and uranium enrichment machines under Dr Khan’s orders to front organisations which he had set up in Dubai. There are also reports that he utilised his old connections in western Europe for these clandestine activities, connections which had contributed to the covert acquisition of nuclear weapons capacities by Pakistan itself in the Seventies and Eighties.

What is even more alarming is that Pakistani scientists transferred sets of drawings, sketches, metallurgical specifications and hexa-floride gas to North Korea and Iraq. Once the supplies to Iran came to be known to the IAEA, its inspectors insisted that Iran give additional undertakings under a new protocol to abide by the terms of the NPT and nuclear safeguards arrangements.

Soon after the military defeat in 1971, Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was clear in his mind that Pakistan should acquire nuclear weapons and related delivery systems to match India’s military capacities. Even as a number of senior Pakistani nuclear scientists opposed Bhutto’s nuclear ambitions, Dr Khan showed a willingness to do the needful. He acquired the wherewithal along with sophisticated equipment from France, Britain, the US, Holland, Germany, Italy, Scandinavian countries, China and North Korea. China emerged as the main supplier for Pakistan’s nuclear weaponisation programme and sold special industrial furnaces and high technology diagnostic equipment to unsafeguarded nuclear facilities in Pakistan.

Between 1972 and 1974, Pakistan had persuaded Libya, Saudi Arabia and Iraq, to fund its nuclear weapons programme. By 1977, Pakistan went into high gear to become a nuclear weapons State after having collected the basic materials necessary to acquire nuclear weapons. The first Pakistani nuclear device was tested at China’s testing site at Lopnor in Sinkiang in 1987. By 1992, Dr Khan openly confirmed that Pakistan was a nuclear weapons capable State.

The funding from Libya, Iraq and Saudi Arabia was rooted in the significant political orientations of Pakistan’s nuclear weapon policies. Pakistan was not acquiring nuclear weapons capacity only to counter India’s conventional military superiority. Bhutto had told leaders of the OIC in 1974 that Pakistan’s bomb would be an ‘Islamic bomb’ and could be the foundation for Islamic countries acquiring strategic military capacities to counter other nuclear weapons powers. Second, Pakistan’s nuclear capacities were built with the support of a number of West European countries and the US who were signatories of the NPT.

The additional question arises as to why the US and western powers did not monitor and counter Pakistan’s nuclear weapons aspirations in the late Seventies and the Eighties. The fact of the matter is that western powers were fully knowledgeable about the nuclear weaponisation programme. They turned a blind eye to the programme because of their desire to utilise Pakistan to resist the Soviet incursion into Afghanistan. This connivance by the West continued more or less till 9/11. It was only after the direct attack on the US that Pakistani nuclear wea-pons activities came under scrutiny and was subjected to investigation.

Though Dr Khan has been relieved of his post as advisor to the prime minister and has confessed to his illegal activities, the speed with which he was pardoned by Musharraf clearly indicates the obfuscations which Pakistan is indulging in to meet the international pressure on its nuclear proliferation activities. Dr Khan and all his colleagues have been subjected to cosmetic punitive action. No prosecution or punishment is likely. It is inconceivable that Dr Khan and his colleagues could have indulged in extensive proliferation activities for nearly a decade without the knowledge of the Pakistani government, particularly the military high command.

Musharraf has exonerated former army chiefs, including General Aslam Beg, for being involved. There are reports that Dr Khan had sent documentary proof of the military authorities being aware of his illegal proliferation activities to his daughter Dina in Iraq, with instructions that she should go public with that evidence if Pakistan, under pressure from the US, took any drastic action against him.

Dr Khan’s confession is essentially an exercise to ensure mutual safety between Musharraf and him. It is relevant to note that senior US officials and analysts have acknowledged that India’s track record of adhering to commitments about not participating in any horizontal proliferation activities has been impeccable. That India’s assessments and anticipations regarding Pakistani’s nuclear mischief stands confirmed is not enough. A matter of continuing concern should be as to what stage a development of nuclear weapons capacity might have been reached by the countries to which Pakistan exported nuclear material and nuclear know-how.

A point which emerges from these critical developments is that horizontal proliferation can’t be prevented unless the nuclear powers themselves move towards ending a vertical proliferation and then eliminate WMDs in a specific — even if it’s gradual — time-frame.