"Traitor" will get a rich retirement

Observations on Pakistan's nuclear scandal

Abdul Qadeer Khan has been declared "an enemy of the state". Pakistan's revered national hero, the man responsible for enriching the uranium used in the country's 1998 nuclear tests, has admitted selling nuclear secrets to Libya and Iran. But is he the sole architect of an "underground nuclear black market" that began in the mid-1980s in Pakistan and spread throughout the globe? What are we to make of the assertions of President Pervez Musharraf, that illegal proliferation was carried out by "rogue scientists" without official involvement?

Khan was singled out by a much-publicised government investigation into the Kahuta nuclear weapons facility named after him: Dr A Q Khan Research Laboratories. The investigation was set up at US insistence, after evidence emerged linking Iran's uranium-enrichment technology to Pakistan. Musharraf was in no position to resist, particularly when further evidence from Libya and North Korea also implicated Pakistan.

A string of scientists were arrested and denied access to their lawyers and families. Parliament was banned from debating the issue, and press restrictions were imposed on reporting the affair. And the blame was placed on Khan, even before the investigation had begun.

There is little doubt about Khan's involvement. He has openly said that scientific knowledge, including nuclear physics, should be shared among developing countries. In 1975, he stole the blueprints for gas centrifuges, the key machines required for building a bomb, from the Netherlands. Since then, he has become unfathomably rich. I have seen him strutting like a peacock around the conference circuit in Islamabad, mobbed by the masses and saluted by scientists. That such a man is seen as a national idol speaks volumes about Pakistan.

However, it is inconceivable that Khan and a few of his colleagues acted by themselves. The Pakistani army is and has been the sole guardian of the nuclear programme. Politicians are kept at arm's length and told in uncompromising language not to interfere. The former prime minister Benazir Bhutto once complained that the army blocked her efforts to find out anything about the nuclear programme to such an extent that she had to ask the CIA for help. The Kahuta plant has been controlled and run by the army since 1976, even though Khan was ostensibly its director. Nothing moves there without the army's full consent.

Khan was probably only the frontman, bidding on behalf of his military masters. Musharraf has already absolved all former senior military and intelligence officials who could be implicated in establishing and running such an elaborate black market. And he insists that no illegal proliferation has occurred since the National Command Authority took control of the nuclear arsenal in February 2000.

So how are we to explain the planeload of nuclear equipment heading for Libya and recently impounded by the Americans? Or the shipload of centrifuge components seized en route to Libya last October? Or the Pakistani transport plane being loaded with missile parts (presumably in exchange for nuclear know-how) in North Korea, which was photographed in 2002 by American spy satellites?

Musharraf's problems are not limited to explaining the behaviour of Pakistan's omnipresent military. He must also work out what he is going to do with Khan, now that the scientist has been forced to confess. Khan commands huge support not just from the people but from the military. Putting him on trial will spill the beans and upset the army. And Khan was clever enough to send his daughter to the Netherlands in December with truckloads of incriminating documents.

If Khan is prosecuted and imprisoned, the military will certainly take revenge. Recent assassination attempts against Musharraf, blamed on fundamentalists, have all the imprints of disgruntled army officers. Expect a rap on the knuckles, then a rich retirement in the wilderness for Abdul Qadeer Khan.