The nuclear proliferator who was never indicted

One key question is unlikely to go away despite the passing of A.Q. Khan, the world’s biggest nuclear proliferator, who developed COVID-19 complications. Why did the United States never indict this Dutch-trained Pakistani metallurgist for stealing western nuclear secrets and operating an illicit international nuclear-smuggling network for more than a quarter of a century? After all, the U.S. has indicted lesser known individuals, including as recently as last year, for conspiring to smuggle nuclear goods to Pakistan.

The beginnings

Khan began his nuclear smuggling in the mid-1970s while working in the Netherlands as an engineer at Urenco, a European consortium, where he furtively accessed blueprints of centrifuges for enriching uranium. With the help of the designs he stole and the nuclear components and materials he procured illicitly from Europe and North America, Khan played a central role in Pakistan’s nuclear-weapons development, although China’s covert assistance was critical to its ultimate success.

Until Pakistan’s 1998 nuclear tests, Khan focused on smuggling western nuclear goods to his country. Thereafter, Pakistan’s nuclear czar established a nuclear supermarket, selling starter kits and components to countries the U.S. considered rogue states — Iran, Libya and North Korea.

Yet, the U.S. never indicted Khan. Why the world’s nuclear non-proliferation leader did not indict the top global nuclear-smuggling kingpin is an issue that has not even been examined.

The Lubbers revelations

Former Dutch Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers revealed in 2005 that the Netherlands sought to arrest Khan in 1975 and then again in 1986 but that on each occasion, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) advised his country to back off. With Dutch authorities deferring to U.S. intelligence, Khan was allowed to return to the Netherlands repeatedly, with his last visit being in 1992.

In fact, after Khan was tried in absentia and sentenced to four years in prison in 1983 for stealing secret blueprints, the Amsterdam court lost his legal files, with the main judge suspecting the CIA’s hand in the disappearance. In 1985, Khan’s sentence was overturned on a technicality — he had not been served the summons. Instead of seeking a retrial, authorities abandoned prosecuting the most momentous crime committed in the Netherlands since the Second World War.

As Lubbers said, “The last word is Washington. There is no doubt they knew everything, heard everything.” So, why did the U.S. protect Khan? Probably the same reason why Washington ignored mounting evidence of Pakistan’s nuclear-weapons advances. As The New York Times reported in 1998 that “without China’s help, Pakistan’s bomb would not exist”, but that the U.S. “pursued policies that proved almost as essential to the Pakistani bomb program” as the Chinese assistance.

In the 1980s, while Khan’s network was smuggling western nuclear items to Pakistan, the CIA was smuggling billions of dollars of weapons to anti-Soviet guerrillas in Afghanistan via Pakistan. Add to the picture another Cold War dimension that Lubbers alluded to: New Delhi’s warm ties with Moscow and the 1974 nuclear test induced the U.S. to turn a blind eye to Pakistani proliferation to help balance India.

A role switch

The U.S.’s concerns were stirred only after Pakistan’s 1998 nuclear tests, which emboldened Khan’s metamorphosis from a buyer to a seller. After Iran and Libya later admitted receiving nuclear items from Pakistan-linked black marketeers, U.S. pressure compelled Pakistan to open investigations into Khan’s activities.

What followed was a remarkable charade. In a state-scripted confession, Khan appeared on national television in 2004 asking for forgiveness, saying he had acted entirely on his own in transferring nuclear goods to other countries. Pakistani dictator General Pervez Musharraf then quickly pardoned Khan. But to prevent the uncovering of the military’s own role in the nuclear-smuggling scandal, Musharraf also barred international investigators from questioning Khan.

Before long, the charade started unravelling. Khan disowned his confession, saying it had been forced upon him by Musharraf, while the Islamabad High Court ruled his house detention unlawful. Khan lived the rest of his life in his comfortable Islamabad villa, with state-provided security.

Yet, the U.S. readily acquiesced in the charade from the beginning, despite knowing well that Khan could not have operated alone in a country that has always been in the grip of its military. British investigative journalists Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark, in their book on the scandal, concluded that Khan’s underground trade was “supervised by Pakistan’s ruling military clique”. Musharraf himself, according to French intellectual Bernard Henri Lévy, was in the know of “Khan’s dark machinations”.

The North Korean link

In exchange for supplying centrifuges to Pyongyang, Pakistan received North Korean ballistic missile technology, helping it to build its first intermediate-range, nuclear-capable missile, Ghauri. North Korea’s nuclear-weapons capability, however, relies not on enriched uranium but on plutonium, which the Khan network did not traffic. Iran apparently received second-hand gear — discarded Pakistani centrifuges, some with traces of enriched uranium. Libya was sold basic kits, from ageing centrifuges to natural uranium.

As Pakistan’s Kahuta facility advanced from entry-level P-1 aluminium centrifuges to P-2 maraging-steel centrifuges — which could spin almost twice faster, thus doubling the rate of uranium enrichment — Khan’s network palmed off the old centrifuges on other nations. However, until Khan’s very last breath, Pakistan’s military generals ensured that no outside investigator questioned him.

The law of consequences

Against this background, America’s shielding of Khan, who long championed a “Muslim bomb”, paralleled its policy of not penalising the Pakistani military’s nexus with terrorist groups, thus leading to unforeseen but far-reaching consequences. Such dual shielding paved the way for Pakistan’s emergence as the world’s sole state sponsor of Islamist terrorism protected by nuclear weapons.

Today, the U.S. maintains contingency plans to seize Pakistan’s nuclear weapons if they risk falling into terrorist hands. Such a threat, however, comes from jihadists within Pakistan’s military and nuclear establishment. The U.S. has added Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to its list of foreign terrorist organisations but not Pakistan’s rogue Inter-Services Intelligence, with which the CIA has sustained long-standing ties.

But as if to underscore the law of unintended consequences, the U.S., through its humiliating Afghanistan defeat at the hands of a terrorist militia, has tasted the bitter fruits of the Pakistani generals’ cross-border use of jihadist proxies from behind their protective nuclear shield.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including the award-winning ‘Water: Asia’s New Battleground’

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Printable version | Nov 29, 2021 12:15:53 PM |

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