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a time for fear
Sunday, February 01, 2004  
The Nukes of Hazard

A subplot in the rapidly unfolding story of Pakistan: its central role in a global black market that deals in nuclear equipment and expertise, leading to the arrest of the architect and daddy of the first Islamic nuke, Abdul Qadeer Khan. Khan has been in custody for a month. His case is particularly sensitive because, in pre-9/11 Pakistan, Khan was feted as a national hero. In a country consumed, primarily, by its furious rivalry with India, Khan gave Pakistan (in Musharraf's words) "honour" and "the pride of [...] nuclear capability." Despite Musharraf's tribute (which dates back to Khan's first forced "debriefing" in 2001), Khan and other members of Khan Research Laboratories (KRL) are being forced to talk about the part they played in the proliferation of nuclear technology to Iran, Libya and North Korea.

Khan's career highlights the knife-edge Pakistan lives on, and the fact that, had Musharraf not been such a weak character and therefore pliable to US muscle and money after 9/11, then the world would be facing the prospect of an Islamist bomb and it is surely certain that, by now, that bomb would have been used. Still the possibility cannot be discounted, or the danger underestimated: if Musharraf is killed then we are in that exact position. Meanwhile, the military, the ISI and Pakistan's Islamist parties all look to remove their renegade puppet and, evidently, actively pursue the event. Again, a man of insignificant character and mediocre ability assumes a position of preeminent strategic importance - a common refrain in the politics of global warfare.

Khan is a hardline Pakistani Nationalist and Islamist, who once said that "all Western countries are not only the enemies of Pakistan but in fact of Islam". As the India-Pakistan confrontation over Kashmir switched from nationalism to jihad, Khan was perfectly placed to elevate tensions through his clandestine nuclear programme, begun for that very reason. Khan had stolen the blueprints for the enrichment of uranium when he worked in Holland for an Anglo-Dutch-German nuclear engineering consortium called Urenco. He returned to Pakistan with this stolen intelligence and, with the backing of the ISI, set up his research and development laboratories. During the Cold War America poured money into ISI coffers and this was diverted, in increasing amounts, to Khan's project. Pretty soon Pakistan could produce its own nuclear warheads and just lacked a delivery system (i.e. ballistic missiles). The CIA informed the White House almost immediately, but both the US and Pakistan denied the existence of Khan's bomb so that the US could continue funding the ISI in a still tense Cold War theatre. This silence ended in 1998 when, aided by Chinese ballistic hardware, Pakistan conducted its first open nuclear test. Street celebrations in Islamabad were shown on TV across the globe, gleeful citizens dancing around massive model missiles, jeering anti-Indian invective. The US put pressure on China to cease assistance to the Pakistan nuclear programme, which it did. Pakistan once again lacked the money and means to build its own ballistic missiles. One pugnacious little Cold War survivor, however, specialised in that very field.

North Korea is the largest exporter of long-range missiles to the Muslim world. In the last 15 years it has shifted over 400 missiles to rogue states unable to obtain them from the West, including Pakistan and Iran (a covert supply of aid is not exactly the same as direct arms trading, it seems). Kim Jong-Il dominates the ballistics black market. (The CIA also claims that Jong-Il supplied SCUD technology to Iran, Syria, Libya, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen.) Pakistan's ties with North Korea date back to the mid-seventies, but really bore fruit in the mid-nineties. In 1995, Islamabad signed a deal with Pyongyang for the purchase of long-range missiles capable of delivering nuclear warheads and, potentially, striking US, NATO and allied deployed forces. Initially Pakistan intended to pay back North Korea with money, but as the country slid further into debt and domestic decay this became less and less tenable (missiles are, after all, expensive items). However, in the late '90s, when they were forced to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, North Korea sent their nuke programme underground. Pakistan now had a valuable asset: the uranium enrichment techniques stolen and developed by Khan and his research lab. By obtaining enrichment technology from Pakistan, the North Koreans could continue developing nuclear weapons in secret. The eventual deal saw Pakistan swapping uranium enrichment equipment for ballistic missiles. This exchange has only been completed in recent months.

The KhanRL nuclear trail also leads to Libya and Iran, two countries that have just opened their weapons programmes to International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors. Enrichment facilities bearing the Urenco/Khan blueprint have been discovered in both cases. Furthermore, Iran has blurted out details of a vast procurement network that connects rogue scientists in Pakistan (i.e. Khan and his kru) with German and Sri Lankan middlemen based in Dubai who could obtain parts from European, Asian and American companies. This, plus North Korea's missiles. Oh, and the (very) covert or indirect supply of technology and expertise from China and Russia (so the CIA claims).

Khan, a flamboyant egomaniac and icon of Pakistani nationalism and Islamic jihad, is far less dispensable than Musharraf (a puppet dictator who has turned his back on those who, effectively, put him in power, i.e the ISI and military Islamists). The Bush administration has so far suppressed its own intelligence about the extent of Pakistan's nuclear proliferation (recent leaks have been viewed as warning shots aimed at Islamabad). They understand how delicate everything is in every way. An alienated Musharraf is the same as a dead Musharraf: it leaves you with a nuclear-armed Islamist state itching for holy thermonuclear war on the subcontinent. The best way to keep Musharraf safe is to buy off Pakistan wholesale. The one thing the Islamists cannot fight, in the end, is debt relief and aid. Since Musharraf rallied to the Bush cause in 2001, all of Pakistan's debts have been cancelled, most recently with a $395 million lump sum. This is the only populist call that Musharraf has to fight the call of faith (one of the reasons that Musharraf is so threatened by US intelligence leaks linking Pakistan to North Korea's nuclear programme is because Japan is Pakistan's second largest aid donor after the US: evidence that Pakistan is arming an adversary could, potentially, prompt Japan to reconsider aid conditions).

7:15 PM

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