From fame to shame

The world view about Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan is 180 degrees different from how the domestic population views him. The world sees a rogue scientist who used a vast nuclear underworld black market to make money for himself, the jury is still out whether his entrepreneur-ship was with or without official sanction and/or connivance. Speaking to the National Defence University (NDU), US President George Bush outlined a new major campaign against nuclear proliferation, detailing US intelligence findings on Dr AQ Khan and the underground network he used. Khan is generally regarded as a hero within Pakistan, a greater percentage of the population tending to disbelieve rather than believe the allegations against him. Independent analysts within the country are caught betwixt and in-between i.e. the supreme national interest makes one cautious and circumspect out of national security considerations, on the other hand the truth is staring us in the face, reinforced by the need to adhere to the accountability principles of a free media. Another dire reason to lay out the facts, the absence thereof has evoked a spate of rumours and turned it into a virtual firestorm of misinformation.

Among the reasons that make it near impossible for any our rulers to make AQK really accountable are, viz (1) the population adores him as a genuine hero who gave Pakistan a nuclear capability (2) the public is aware that AQK carried out this clandestine operation with great difficulty against the combined opposition of the US and other western countries, and therefore subscribes to the conspiracy theory that they mean to physically eliminate AQK (3) the public disbelieves that AQK could have taken any initiative without official sanction (and/or connivance) and feel he is being made a scapegoat to cover the wrongdoings of others in authority (4) without documentary evidence of illegal monetary and real-estate holdings of AQK (and his 10 associates) being made public, the population is skeptical about his alleged corruption (5) the public feels that AQK’s international vilification is only being used as a pretext by a Western/Indian conspiracy to de-nuclearise Pakistan (6) there is general skepticism AQK could have gotten away with it without active connivance of senior army officials and financial experts (7) Pakistan’s existing nuclear program can only be sustained by keeping the procurement process secret (8) the government desperately needs to sustain the morale and address the insecurity of other nuclear scientists not tainted by AQK’s shenanigans and (9) preserve the sanctity of our nuclear deterrent by keeping secure its operational employment.

Pakistan did not acquire nuclear expertise as a weapon per se but as a deterrent to India’s capability. The world very reluctantly came to terms with Pakistan’s nuclear potential as an India-specific deterrent as legitimate self-defence. On the back of India’s 1998 Pokhara explosions, it gave us the opportunity to come out of the nuclear closet and become a declared nuclear power rather than remain a clandestine one. The world should have regularized us a recognized nuclear power and not imposed sanctions upon us, we would not have further need for our clandestine supply sources. The world must partly accept responsibility for forcing us to remain in the nuclear nether world. The external view is two-track, having recognized Pakistan’s legitimate self-defense needs given our conventional disparity we have with India, the US simply wants nuclear proliferation to stop. Terrorists upped the ante with 9/11 so that the unthinkable has now become a distinct possibility, the use of a “dirty” nuclear bomb to kill masses of people. The other world view is an orchestrated extension of the motivated and vested interest of India in de-nuking Pakistan and get us declared a “rogue State”, at the very least to close down our nuclear supply network. For nuclear imports, we do not need to make apologies to anyone but the “exports” of plans, drawings, components etc to countries such as Iran, Libya and North Korea are not only illegal but something else. It is interesting to note that Ms Benazir acknowledges we bought missile plans from North Korea with cash on the barrel.

Within Pakistan our media and politicians seemingly unable to understand the necessity for acting responsibly and are trying to accomplish their own political objectives. In effect they are destabilizing Pakistan in trying to overturn the ruling regime on this issue, playing into the hands of our detractors. Without our nuclear deterrent, India could have gambled a conventional offensive against Pakistan, whether they would have succeeded or not is open to question but the collateral damage to our economic infra-structure would be incalculable. AQK cleverly force-multiplied his popularity by the help of media persons paid huge payments of money to embellish his reputation. The May 1998 explosion took AQK’s image to a high within the country even though there is doubt whether the device was from Kahuta Research Laboratories (KRL) or Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC). PAEC probably did most of the work at Chagai but could not compete with AQK’s established place in the hearts and minds of the Pakistani populace, one doubts if there is name recognition from Dr Samar Mobarakmand among 3-5% of the population. With this perception of unadulterated adulation, how do we deal with our hero well knowing he was also blatantly corrupt in allowing his openly corrupt lifestyle? Though very few dared say so, it was generally believed that he was skimming money from procurements, the “no-questions asked” attitude accepted this blatant corruption as legitimate. Gradually an image of omni-potency, of being above the State, was built-up, carefully nurtured by AQK, his associates and his friends. The Musharraf regime gets good marks for institutionalizing accountability, even though NAB is quite selective. In this case NAB must target AQK and his associates, particularly in seizing their assets. Accountability in Pakistan is usually compromised by, viz (1) active neglect and (2) benign neglect. “Active neglect” involves looking the other way while knowing that certain categories of people have free rein to loot and plunder while “benign neglect” allows a favourite is allowed to run riot by feigning ignorance of his/her misdeeds.

By the time the President removed AQK from KRL two years ago and put him in an Advisory post, documented intelligence about the complex nature of his illegal holdings was available. Even so when US officials Richard Armitage, Christine Rocca and Lt Gen Abizaid (separately) briefed Musharraf last October about AQK’s involvement in nuclear proliferation through a vast underground network, the nuclear proliferation charge should not have been a surprise for the President. We have a failure of intelligence in critical areas at critical times, it has taken two months since the assassination attempt on the President to sack an intelligence chief, a totally useless character whose time in office was spent gathering real-estate or going after his own “enemies”. Nuclear proliferation to the so-called rogue states, Iran, Libya and North Korea, considered by the world to be unstable and dangerous is a serious matter. The President has a real dilemma, notwithstanding AQK’s “confession”, how to separate the State from the actions of a rogue scientist so that the rogue scientist does not take the State down with him for the sake of his own hide and his illegitimate billions. What about his pre-emptive media strike that AQK had already launched in the form of rumours, leaked stories, etc implying that whatever he had done was done with official sanction, a sort of a “reverse blackmail”, holding the country to ransom in bartering his freedom. AQK had already compromised the security staff meant to keep an eye on things, among those detained are two retired Brigadiers and one retired major.

What Pakistan requires from AQK is a full rendition of the clandestine underworld organization/individuals and a return of the loot that he illegally acquired. The government must proceed against the Pakistanis involved and inform US and other governments about those of different nationalities in the illegal “export” chain. Giving AQK a pardon may be a suitable stopgap compromise to contain the possible public outcry, now his network must be dissembled with full vigour. We allowed AQK to run riot at the expense of the country, in sowing the wind thus we must be prepared to reap the whirlwind.