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Fission Smokescreen

The US searchlight flits from Khan to PAEC-NDC, Pak's 'real nuclear hubs' Updates

Fission Smokescreen
Fission Smokescreen
Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf’s proliferation headache shows all signs of becoming even more severe. Sources say the Bush administration has now asked the Pakistan government to debrief scientists at the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) and the National Defence Complex (NDC), fearing Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan just might have been used as a decoy to divert the international community’s attention from these two bodies where substantial work on the country’s nuclear programme was undertaken. (This follows a US rebuttal of Musharraf’s contention that American intelligence inputs on Pakistan’s nuke leaks came his regime’s way only last October, and Israel and Russia expressing serious concern, quite vocally, over the concealed pan-Islamist dimension of the Pak nuclear weapons programme.)

Diplomatic sources in Islamabad say the US demand is based on intelligence showing that most aspects of Pakistan’s nuclear programme—mining and processing of uranium, and designing and manufacturing—were assigned to the PAEC which, till April 6, 2001, was headed by Dr Ashfaq Ahmed. The enrichment of fissile materials to weapons-grade level was the responsibility of the Khan’s Kahuta Research Laboratories. Since Pakistan’s nuclear programme was covert, Khan was encouraged to pose as the ‘father of the bomb’, even though he was responsible for just one of the 24 steps required for producing nuclear weapons. Those entrusted with the other 23 steps worked under Dr Samar Mubarikmand, member (technical) of the PAEC, who reported to chairman Ahmed. Khan’s status was equal to the PAEC chairman’s and he reported to the president directly.

There has been intense competition between KRL and the PAEC to claim credit for Pakistan’s nuclear programme. Ever since his return to Pakistan in 1976, Khan had grabbed headlines; his shadowy sketches began to appear in national and international magazines. Subsequently, he began to openly speak to the press, arrogating to himself the credit for Pakistan’s nuclearisation. But this was challenged in the summer of 1998, after the successful Chagai nuclear explosions. Mubarikmand was quoted saying it was wrong to solely credit the KRL, considering it was responsible for just one of the 24 vital steps in the nuclear programme.

As Khan and Mubarikmand jostled for fame, the US was fast becoming suspicious of Pakistan’s nuke programme. It was under intense pressure from Washington that Musharraf effected, on April 6, 2001, large-scale changes in the country’s nuclear establishment. Khan was retired as KRL chairman and made advisor to the chief executive; Ahmed was packed off from the helm of PAEC; so was Mubarikmand as member (technical).

But there was one vital difference. Mubarikmand, on the same day, was anointed NDC head. This was in effect a promotion: earlier in the year the weapons programme had been transferred to the NDC, as the establishment feared the gathering proliferation storm—and fearing sanctions against organisations known for their roles in the nuclear programme. Diplomatic sources say the US wants Pakistan to debrief Mubarikmand on the basis of intelligence information that he too had been involved in uranium enrichment. Mubarikmand in his younger days had undertaken an experiment involving centrifuges in the ’70s. Though he denied it had any application in uranium enrichment, his supervisor had thought otherwise. It was around this time that Khan produced uranium enrichment blueprints. He demanded a separate organisation and a team of PAEC scientists from then PM, Z.A. Bhutto. Thus the KRL’s birth.

The US intelligence apparently believes all this drama could have been enacted to use Khan as a decoy and divert attention from the PAEC, where the real nuclear programme was carried out. Diplomatic sources say the Americans are aware that the KRL’s scientists constitute only a fifth of the PAEC’s and that it was grossly overmanned considering its workload. This was done to mislead those who would want to train the searchlight on Pakistan’s nuclear programme. In fact, the information acquired by the US suggests the PAEC’s top brass, including Mubarikmand, knew of Khan’s proliferation activities and his clandestine attempts at procurement for the programme. It’s felt that this is reason enough to debrief Mubarikmand.

The Pakistan government’s response to the US demand for the debriefing of PAEC and NDC scientists has been positive. The government has, however, communicated the implausibility of PAEC and the NDC scientists being involved in proliferation, largely because of the stringent security restrictions under which they work. As the PAEC never enjoyed sweeping autonomy, the government circles maintain, the only proliferation charge levelled against Pakistan by the International Atomic Energy Agency pertained to the one preliminary step Khan was responsible for. "Had proliferation been a state policy, the other 23 groups involved in the bomb-making process should have also been leaking out nuclear secrets," insist government officials. They say the blueprints Khan supplied to Libya could well turn out to be the rival KRL design that wasn’t adopted.

Yet, diplomatic sources say, the welter of information the US possesses shows that Pakistanis were assisting North Korea and Iran in accordance with officially vetted agreements for clandestine training of nuclear scientists and mutual exchange of the nuclear know-how. They say no such agreement could have been possible without the military leadership’s approval. These sources say the information was provided to Musharraf on October 6, 2003, at the time deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage, assistant secretary of state Christina Rocca and US central command chief John Abizaid descended on Islamabad.

Sources say US intelligence sleuths stationed in Pakistan began to suspect North Korean involvement in Pakistan’s nuclear and missile programme after Kim Sin-ae, wife of Kang Thae-yun, North Korean economic counsellor in Islamabad, was found murdered. It was Kang Thae who had brokered a deal with an unidentified Russian company to bring to Pakistan Maraging Steel, a key component of missile bodies and nosecones. He and his wife, Kim, were close to Khan. The US agents believe Kim was probably killed by her own government after she approached a British agent, wishing to defect in exchange for Pak and North Korean nuclear secrets. US sleuths were also told a prototype centrifuge was smuggled with her coffin on a special flight from Islamabad.

Diplomatic sources cite US intelligence to claim that since January 2000, after Musharraf came to power, Pakistani nuclear scientists had been working in North Korea and the latter’s missile experts in Pakistan. It was part of the now infamous nuke-for-missile deal. With the US, the EU and Japan providing Pakistan increased economic assistance post 9/11, Islamabad began to pay cash for North Korean missiles. In 2003, large-scale movement of goods under military escort to Pakistan from China via the Karakoram Highway was recorded. While most of the containers ferried spare parts for Chinese arms and ammunition in Pakistan’s arsenal, it is possible, diplomatic sources say, that missile-related goods were sent by North Korea into China and then transported along the Karakoram Highway.

Diplomatic sources here say few believe the military establishment wasn’t aware of the role Khan and his colleagues played in proliferation. But they are willing to not name Musharraf or past governments as long as the US is provided detailed information on the nuclear blackmarket and assured that Islamabad will indeed cap the proliferation for all times to come.

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