Monday, February 2, 2004

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How high up will this go?

The New York Times reports that the godfather of Pakistan's nuclear weapons program has spilled the beans:

The founder of Pakistan's nuclear weapons program, Abdul Qadeer Khan, has signed a detailed confession admitting that during the last 15 years he provided Iran, North Korea and Libya with the designs and technology to produce the fuel for nuclear weapons, according to a senior Pakistani official and three Pakistani journalists who attended a special government briefing here on Sunday night.

In a two-and-a-half-hour presentation to 20 Pakistani journalists, a senior government official gave an exhaustive and startling account of how Dr. Khan, a national hero, spread secret technology to three countries that have been striving to produce their own nuclear arsenals. Two of them, Iran and North Korea, were among those designated by President Bush as part of an "axis of evil."....

The Bush administration offered no public comment on the Pakistani announcement on Sunday. But in recent weeks, administration officials have said that they forced the government of President Pervez Musharraf to confront the evidence, after Iran and Libya made disclosures that showed their reliance on Pakistani-supplied technology.

"This is the break we have been waiting for," a senior American official said. But the account provided by Pakistani officials carefully avoided pinning any blame on General Musharraf, the army or the Pakistani intelligence service, despite the fact that some of the material — especially what was sent to North Korea — appeared to have been transported on government cargo planes.

Pakistani and American officials have said senior Pakistani Army officials would have known if nuclear hardware had been shipped out of a tightly guarded nuclear facility.

Quick hits:

  • Give the Bush administration some credit for pushing Musharraf into taking action;

  • One wonders whether the information culled from Khan's confession will be useful in severing what appears to be a well-developed black market in nuclear technology.

  • One really wonders whether any Pakistani officials will be implicated. The story suggests that this should happen but won't.
  • UPDATE: Several commenters are assuming that I'm accepting the Pakistani investigation at face value, when in fact the Musharraf government knew about this all along. Actually, what I think is worthy of mention is that the government has finally admitted that there's a problem. Until two months ago they weren't even willing to do this.

    posted by Dan on 02.02.04 at 01:50 PM


    Just curious, Dan: do you believe this? Do you really think this was a serious investigation and the Pakistani government is shocked to learn of this?

    You can tell from my tone that I don't believe a word of it, but you're the foreign policy expert around here. Do you believe it?

    posted by: Kevin Drum on 02.02.04 at 01:50 PM [permalink]

    Ditto Kevin above:
    It seems that the government found a convenient fall guy to put the blame on. This whole idea of "signing a confession" sounds suspicious.

    posted by: Suresh on 02.02.04 at 01:50 PM [permalink]

    I think there are too many loose ends that are conveniently tied up by this development. The whole issue of Pakistani nuclear technology proliferation certainly involved significant portions of the intelligence services and military of the country.

    To have one person take responsibility for the entire issue is farcical, particularly as the result of an "investigation" conducted by a military dictatorship, where there is no transparency at all.

    Either there was some serious coercion going on (i.e. torture), or Mr. Khan was happy to oblige the government in some artful misdirection.

    posted by: Chirag Rabari on 02.02.04 at 01:50 PM [permalink]

    Bush's intervention in Afganistan and Iraq is the main reason why they even bothered to confess. It sure wasn't the diplomats that they sent over there!

    posted by: Jim Coomes on 02.02.04 at 01:50 PM [permalink]

    I think we see only through a glass darkly what is going on with Pakistani politics. Many of the programs Pakistan had underway in defense and foreign policy, including the atomic weapons program and support for the Taliban, were underway before Musharraf came to power. He surely knew something about them, even if he did not know everything. His coup could not have succeeded if he did not have support from within the Army, yet clearly some parts of the military and ISI were pursuing policies independent of the last government. This may have continued under his.

    At any rate, I doubt someone with Khan's reputation in Pakistan could be made to be a fall guy. At the same time I doubt Bush administration pressure was the only thing prompting Musharraf's government to act. Musharraf is bound to think some of the people who wanted to share Pakistan's atomic secrets with Iran and North Korea share goals with the people who want him dead, and this may be the major reason his people forced a confession out of Khan.

    Obviously this is all speculation. We really don't know much at all about why people are doing what they are in Pakistan right now.

    posted by: Zathras on 02.02.04 at 01:50 PM [permalink]

    remember, there's indo-pak peacetalks scheduled in a couple weeks...

    also, the atimes reports that:

    Islamabad has appreciated for some time that, given the latest events involving its scientists, it would come under strong international pressure to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and open up its facilities to international safeguards and inspections. Neither Pakistan nor nuclear neighbor India have signed the NPT. And worse, there is a strong belief in the corridors of power in Pakistan and the KRL that the US will attempt to force Islamabad to abandon its nuclear program altogether.
    Consequently, Pakistani authorities have devised a strategy under which they will urge the US to back off their nuclear facilities, in exchange for help in extracting the US from the imbroglio in which it finds itself in neighboring Afghanistan.
    Developments in Afghanistan strengthen the Pakistan hand. From March this year, as the winter thaw begins, more than ever since September 11, after which Pakistan pledged allegiance to the US in the "war on terror", the US needs Pakistan's help for the safety of the 12,000 international troops in Afghanistan.
    Intelligence reports confirm that once the ice has melted, the Afghan resistance, comprising al-Qaeda, the Hizb-i-Islami Afghanistan of Gulbuddin Hekmatyr and the Islamic Movement of Taliban, will invite local tribes on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border to help expel foreign troops and retake major cities lost by the Taliban in late 2001.
    The tribal aspect of this plan has alarmed Western security officials as US-led forces rely on sections of their support to conduct operations in Afghanistan. Strategists in Islamabad told Asia Times Online that Pakistan would now offer to mediate by soliciting the Taliban - which Pakistan originally helped bring to power in 1996 - to join in a national government and end their resistance.
    If this works, the US will get a much-desired exit strategy from Afghanistan, and Islamabad will get to keep its nuclear program intact.
    posted by: gogol13 on 02.02.04 at 01:50 PM [permalink]

    Today's Washington Post reports that General Musharraf himself has been fingered by A Q Khan. Others include former Army chiefs Gen Beg and Gen Karamat.

    Of course the Pakistani military spokesman has denied that Gen Musharraf was involved...but if the C-130 was spotted in Pyongyang in 2002 (after he signed up for the War on Terror) how seriously do you think we can take the denials.

    posted by: Nitin on 02.02.04 at 01:50 PM [permalink]

    I guess Bush had it wrong.

    Clearly, Pakistan has been the Axle of Evil.

    posted by: Jon H on 02.02.04 at 01:50 PM [permalink]

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