OPINION

An incomplete account of a "most embarrassing moment"



Special Correspondent

General Musharraf's memoirs assert Dr. A.Q. Khan was "self-centred," "abrasive," and greedy; that his proliferation was a "one-man act."

BY HIS own admission, Pervez Musharraf is seldom embarrassed or at a loss for words. But in 2003, as he describes in his memoirs, In the Line of Fire, clinching evidence of Pakistan having illicitly sold nuclear blueprints and equipment to North Korea and Libya left the General quite literally speechless.

In what is likely to be one of the book's most closely read chapters, the Pakistani President undertakes to tackle head on the subject of `Nuclear Proliferation.' His account of the gradual unravelling of the A.Q. Khan network inside and outside Pakistan is riveting, though most readers will find it incomplete and also, in the final analysis, unconvincing.

The General describes meeting President Bush during the United Nations General Assembly summit in September 2003. "[H]e drew me aside and asked me if I could spare some time the next morning for CIA Director George Tenet. `It is extremely serious and very important from your point of view,' he said." What followed was "one of my most embarrassing moments."

The next morning, Mr. Tenet arrived at General Musharraf's hotel room bearing blueprints of Pakistan's P-1 centrifuge that had been recovered from a third country. "I did not know what to say. I have seldom found myself at a loss for words, but this time I surely was. My first thoughts went to my country how to protect it from harm? The second thought was of extreme anger towards Dr A.Q. Khan he had endangered Pakistan. There was no doubt it was he who had been peddling our technology... " Later that year, as the evidence mounted, writes General Musharraf, "the whole ugly episode leaked out and blew straight into Pakistan's face... We stood before the world as the illicit source of nuclear technology for some of the world's most dangerous regimes."

Though the chapter begins with a brief account of Pakistan's own decision to go nuclear "India's intentions were offensive and aggressive, ours were defensive" the figure of A.Q. Khan looms large throughout. In 1975, Dr. Khan, then employed as a metallurgist with the uranium enrichment facility, Urenco, in Holland, "offered his services to the Government of Pakistan." Summoned home, writes General Musharraf, Dr. Khan brought with him drawings of centrifuges. These documents would later lead to the scientist's conviction by a Dutch court in absentia. "In the years that followed, we obtained all the other materials and technology we needed through an underground network based mainly in the developed countries of Europe."

General Musharraf speculates that India perhaps was being supplied by the same network in the 1970s and later sought to benefit from the web of dealers set up by Dr. Khan out of Dubai. "The irony is that the Dubai-based network had employed several Indians, some of whom have since vanished. There is the strong possibility that the genesis of the Indian uranium enrichment programme may also have its roots in the Dubai-based network and could be a copy of the Pakistani centrifuge design." Elsewhere in the chapter, once again with an American audience in mind, he makes the bizarre and unsubstantiated claim that "India's codename for its 1998 nuclear explosions... was `The White House has Fallen'."

In a nutshell, General Musharraf's narrative runs as follows. Due to the nature of the Pakistani nuclear weapons programme, secrecy was paramount and a huge amount of freedom necessarily devolved upon the programme's chief executor, Dr. Khan. "A.Q. Khan was not, in fact, the sole scientist in charge of the entire effort, yet he had a great talent for self-promotion and publicity and led the public to believe that he was building the bomb almost single-handedly," writes General Musharraf. "Nobody ever imagined how irresponsible and reckless he could be." Taking advantage of the programme's secrecy and his own cult-like status, Dr. Khan developed illicit contacts and made unauthorised visits to a number of countries. He sold blueprints and equipment. But at no point, asserts General Musharraf, was the Pakistani Army or Government ever involved.

General Musharraf says he first saw signs of Dr. Khan's "suspicious activities" in early 1999, after the proposed secretariat of the Strategic Plans Division was established by him as Army Chief in rudimentary form within GHQ. Reports came in of North Korean nuclear experts, "under the garb of missile engineers" receiving secret briefings on centrifuges at the Khan Research Laboratory (KRL). General Musharraf summoned Dr. Khan, who denied the charge. "No further reports were received, but we remained apprehensive."

After his coup d'etat of October 1999, General Musharraf says he moved to bring Pakistan's strategic weapons programme "under formalised institutional control and thorough oversight." As a result, more information began to surface about Dr. Khan's "hidden activities." An attempt was made to keep a tab on the scientist's overseas visits. "Even then, I would learn that he had visited countries other than those he had requested."

Gradually, the General realised Dr. Khan was not "part of the problem" but "the problem" himself. "In his presence, we could never get a firm grip over KRL and the only way to do so was to remove him from his position." In March 2001, he was retired off but given an honourable sinecure. Instead of his illicit activities ending, writes General Musharraf, "he started working more vigorously through the Dubai branch of his network."

Though General Musharraf repeatedly stresses the robustness of Pakistan's "custodial control system," it is hard to reconcile these claims with the idea that Dr. Khan could continue to run his network inside and outside Pakistan even after his removal from KRL. Either the system of control is not watertight or Dr. Khan was not running a "personalised network" and actually enjoyed the active collaboration of key people inside the government or military.

There is also no mention in General Musharraf's narrative of other Pakistani nuclear scientists such as Sultan Bashiruddin Chaudhry and Abdul Majid who reportedly had contacts with Al-Qaeda. Nor a rational explanation of why Dr. Khan cannot be interrogated by experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency. Until independent access is provided to him, doubts will always remain about the veracity of General Musharraf's claims of institutional innocence.

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