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Neatly Buttoned Up

In intricate behind-the-scenes moves, Pakistan's military buys Qadeer Khan's silence and pardons him his 'guilt' Updates

Neatly Buttoned Up
Neatly Buttoned Up
When the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) indicted Pakistan late last year for its brazen involvement in nuclear proliferation, President Pervez Musharraf knew some punitive actions had to be taken to appease the displeased United States. From this realisation arose the cruel dilemma: should the military take the blame for the proliferation or should the scientists assisting the father of the Pakistan nuclear programme, Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan, a veritable national icon enjoying tremendous popularity nationwide? As the supreme commander of the armed forces who derives his power from the mighty military establishment, Musharraf's choice, in a way, was a foregone conclusion: it had to be the scientists of the Kahuta Research Laboratories (KRL) who had added the much-vaunted nuclear muscle to Pakistan's military arsenal.

The whiff of this cruel decision could be smelt long before Dr Khan last week publicly accepted, repented and was forgiven his role in nuclear proliferation. It was there when Musharraf told CNN on January 23, 2004, "There is no evidence that any government personality or military personnel were involved." Then, on January 31, 2004, the National Command Authority (NCA), the body that oversees Pakistan's nuclear control and command structure, removed Dr Khan as advisor to the PM to "facilitate the probe into proliferation charges". Normally reticent government officials told the media that "investigators have found evidence to prove that the key players of an underground nuclear black market that supplied some important elements of nuclear technology to Iran and Libya were tied with Dr Khan". Reports also were that Dr Khan and his associates were motivated by financial gains and had acted without the military's knowledge.

Stung by the humiliation, Dr Khan decided to fight back against the military. Before he was placed under house arrest in Islamabad early this January, he had been apprising his close friends of his resolve to expose everyone should Musharraf decide to make him the scapegoat for collective decisions that had the tacit approval of the military establishment. There were also reports that Khan had videotaped his defence and sent a copy of it abroad through his daughter.

No one knows the precise source of The Washington Post's February 3, 2004, report titled, 'Musharraf named in nuclear probe'. But it surely pushed the military on the backfoot. Quoting a close friend of Khan, the Post claimed that the scientist had accepted his role in assisting North Korea in its nuclear programme; that "in conversations with investigators, Dr Khan urged them to question the former army commanders and Musharraf as well, asserting that 'no debriefing is complete unless you bring every one of them here and debrief us together'."

The newspaper further added, "According to a retired Pakistani army corps commander, the barter arrangement (the missile-for-nuke deal between North Korea and Pakistan) dates back to December 1994, when then prime minister Benazir Bhutto travelled to North Korea at the request of General Abdul Waheed (Kakar), the army chief of staff at the time. A few months later, Khan led a delegation of scientists and military officers to Pyongyang, the North Korean capital. Musharraf was serving at the time as General Waheed's director general for military operations." In addition, The New York Times reported that Libya had continued to receive 'nuclear assistance' from Pakistan till 2003, a good four years after Musharraf deposed Nawaz Sharif.

These media disclosures sent shock waves through the military establishment. Their plight was compounded by the fact that Khan's friends launched a whisper campaign saying what had been revealed till now was just the beginning. The message from Khan was loud and clear: bail me out or sink with me.

Aware of the damage Dr Khan could inflict on the military, Musharraf and his advisors roped in former law minister and Senator S.M. Zafar to strike a compromise deal. It was Zafar who had defended Dr Khan in a 1983 case in which the Dutch company Urenco had accused him of stealing nuclear technology. Zafar had then successfully managed to get a superior court in Holland to reverse the guilty verdict that a lower court had handed out against Dr Khan.

Subsequently, the president of the ruling military-sponsored Pakistan Muslim League (Quaid-e-Azam), Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, was summoned from Lahore on February 3 and despatched to Dr Khan's Islamabad residence. The government had agreed to the Zafar formula. According to it, Khan was to accept responsibility for the nuclear proliferation committed during his tenure as KRL chief; in return, Dr Khan could live the rest of his life peacefully in Pakistan. Obviously, the formula also required Dr Khan not to speak on the sensitive nuclear subject.

On February 4, Dr Khan met Musharraf, and then spoke to the nation through a televised address. Reading out from a written statement, he said, "I take full responsibility for my actions and seek your pardon. I give an assurance, my dear brothers and sisters, that such activities will never take place in the future."

Later, Chaudhry Hussain told the media, "Dr Qadeer Khan had accepted responsibility in Pakistan's larger interest to end the confusion. He had made it clear he wouldn't let anyone disgrace his country. He neither submitted any written confession nor sent any videotape abroad with his daughter. I requested him to accept responsibility for the situation, as the issue was being politicised. And...money was not at all the motive behind the nuclear proliferation." Khan's friends say, obviously, his motive was always to break the West's nuclear monopoly.

As soon as Dr Khan concluded his TV speech, the families of detained nuclear scientists and security officials of the KRL convened a press conference in Rawalpindi and accused the government of adopting coercive tactics against the scientists. They said Dr Khan had been forced to make a confessional statement. Equally astonished was Jamaat-e-Islami chief Qazi Hussain Ahmed, who had issued a statement on February 3 claiming that Khan had professed his innocence to him. Qazi told Outlook, "I stand by my statement. I did call Dr Khan on his mobile and he denied having confessed to proliferation charges. You can ask Dr Khan to verify my statement. I tried to contact him after his confession, but he wasn't available."

On February 4, the government also issued a detention order against seven nuclear scientists and administrative officers belonging to KRL, including Qadeer Khan, initially for a period of three months under the Security of Pakistan Act, 1952. But the Zafar formula was already being implemented. On February 4 itself, Dr Khan filed a mercy petition with the President seeking clemency for his role in nuclear proliferation. The petition was referred to the NCA. From there it was sent to the federal cabinet which, on February 5, recommended to Musharraf that Dr Khan should be forgiven in view of his past services for Pakistan. The Pakistan president accepted the recommendation that very evening.

Though Dr Khan has taken complete responsibility for nuclear proliferation to Iran, Libya and North Korea, diplomatic sources close to the US embassy in Islamabad claim the US intelligence has acquired irrefutable documentary evidence of a trilateral nuclear cooperation involving Pakistan, Iran and North Korea. The evidence, sources say, was extracted from a group of 20 senior scientists from North Korea who had defected to the US and its allies in March 2003, through a smuggling operation involving the tiny Pacific island of Nauru.The defections involved 11 countries which provided consular protection to smuggle the scientists from neighbouring China.

Among those debriefed in Washington was the father of North Korea's nuclear programme, Dr Kyong Won-ha. Their debriefing convinced the US about the existence of a nuke-for-missile deal between North Korea and Pakistan, proving indubitably that Islamabad had been sharing sophisticated nuclear technology with Pyongyang since 1997, under then PM Nawaz Sharif. A relationship between the two countries was put in place under Gen Zia-ul-Haq's rule. It was then that Pakistan began buying missiles from North Korea. This relationship continued until the mid-'90s, when the Pakistani economy began to falter. Cash-strapped, then Pakistan PM Benazir Bhutto began bartering for North Korean missiles, giving in return high-speed centrifuge machines and blueprints for the production of nuclear weapons.

Always a harsh critic of Sharif and Bhutto, Musharraf has, interestingly, always desisted from accusing these two leaders of nuclear proliferation. At the World Economic Forum in Davos on January 23, 2004, Musharraf denied to the CNN the possible involvement of the Benazir or Sharif governments in nuclear proliferation. His denial vividly illustrates the common nuclear goal both the military establishment and political elites share.

As the proliferation controversy broke out following the IAEA report's release in November 2003, Gen Musharraf, say diplomatic sources, tried to absolve himself, claiming nuclear leaks occurred before he took over. "However," says a diplomatic source, "pictures of a Pakistani C-130 loading missiles for Pakistan taken by a US satellite at the Pyongyang airport in 2001 were enough to refute Musharraf's claims. These missiles were exchanged for nuclear weapons technology. The ISI was in charge of the operation, approved by Gen Musharraf."

These sources say the American intelligence community has evidence showing Islamabad's willingness to sell enriched uranium and a nuclear power plant at the time Musharraf was wearing the three hats of president, army chief and chief executive. On July 24, 2000, the commerce ministry issued a full-page ad on behalf of the Atomic Energy Commission in English dailies. The advertisement specified guidelines for obtaining no-objection certificates for export of nuclear and radioactive substances, including enriched uranium.

Similarly, the US has evidence showing that Pakistan's commerce ministry produced a glossy brochure for KRL's Directorate of Vacuum Science and Technology. Embossed with the official seal of the 'Government of Pakistan', the brochure offered equipment from the Pakistani gas centrifuge programme that had enabled Pakistan to produce enriched uranium for nuclear weapons. The KRL brochure was displayed at several trade fairs abroad.

Analysts say these findings pushed Musharraf into a tight corner, compelling him to target Dr Khan to save the army establishment from international scrutiny. But many in the intelligence argue that any probe must investigate why the military, which oversees the nuclear programme, failed in discharging its monitoring responsibilities vis-a-vis KRL.

Such was the military's control over KRL that even elected premiers were not allowed to visit its installations near Islamabad. According to former ISI chief Lt Gen (retd) Hameed Gul, it was Gen Mirza Aslam Beg who cemented the General Headquarters' ties with the nuclear programme through the creation of the Directorate General of Combat Development (DG CD) at the GHQ. Launched by Z.A. Bhutto in 1975, Pakistan's nuclear programme worked exclusively under the army's umbrella from day one. While army chiefs gave strategic guidance, the COAS ironed out significant administrative and financial issues and the dg cd coordinated research and development.Two separate brigadiers had hundreds of troops and agents at their disposal to run an impregnable multi-tier security network at KRL. Also, the ISI had a separate detachment for KRL Obviously, Dr Khan could not have acted alone, never mind his public confessions.
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