After three years of denying anything was amiss in Pakistan's nuclear establishment, President Pervez Musharraf has finally conceded that a national icon, Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan (AQK), the father of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal, is a criminal proliferator of nuclear secrets.
But Mr. Musharraf is still reluctant to concede that his country's all-powerful and controversial Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency knew about it. Islamabad's behind-the-scenes whispers say Mr. Musharraf , when he was army chief of staff, then chief executive before he became president, also was fully in the picture.
AQK, a devout Muslim with a penchant for the lifestyle of the rich and famous, is under house arrest after admitting he peddled nuclear know-how to North Korea, Iran and Libya. After Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi decided last month to dismantle his embryonic nuclear weapons program under international inspection, AQK's assistance could no longer be denied. AQK and his nuclear scientists had given Libya the wherewithal, originally stolen from the plant where Dr. Khan worked in the Netherlands in the 1970s, to manufacture the centrifuge technology needed to refine uranium to weapons-grade quality.
Under questioning by Mr. Musharraf himself, AQK confessed to being the "enabler" for the secret nuclear weapons programs of both North Korea and Iran, the remaining two members of president Bush's axis of evil trio. Iraq was the third. But Pakistan's Dr. No also made it clear he would go public with everything he knows about the powers-that-be at a public trial.
AQK's Khan Research Laboratories (KRL) — the heart of Pakistan's nuclear establishment — was so secret even civilian prime ministers were not allowed to visit the installations 20 miles west of Islamabad. KRL was under the strict control and supervision of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency. Both the KRL and ISI are known for their anti-American culture.
In 2001, a U.S. spy-in-the-sky satellite photographed a Pakistani C-130 at Pyongyang airport in North Korea as it loaded missiles for Pakistan. These missiles were exchanged for nuclear weapons technology. ISI was in charge of the entire operation.
AQK's motivations were ideological as well as the lure of lucre. He had a well-known loathing of the U.S. that dated back to 1989 when the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan and the U.S. began punishing Pakistan for its secret quest to acquire a nuclear arsenal. The Bush 41 and Clinton administrations imposed a series of diplomatic, economic, and military sanctions against Pakistan, which kept denying it was involved in anything beyond the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. Until Pakistan's 1998 nuclear tests, that is.
AQK was generously compensated for helping America's enemies achieve nuclear weapons capabilities. He made dozens of trips to North Korea and to Dubai, where he maintained a mansion, and met with Libyan and Iranian nuclear scientists. He also conducted similar meetings in Casablanca, Morocco, and Istanbul, Turkey. Anyone who knows anything about Pakistan's ultrasecret nuclear activities also knows these activities could not have taken place without the full knowledge — and approval — of ISI.
President Musharraf first suspected something was amiss in March 2001 when he relieved AQK as head of Pakistan's nuclear program and appointed him as an adviser to the president on nuclear affairs. But AQK continued his nuclear proliferation activities unimpeded until last week when he was fired as an adviser to the president and placed under house arrest.
Two Pakistani nuclear scientists under AQK's orders journeyed to Kandahar, Afghanistan, shortly before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, to confer with Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban leader, and Osama bin Laden. Shortly after Operation Enduring Freedom toppled the Taliban regime, one of Mullah Omar's messages warned of an event that would soon hit the U.S. "so terrible that it defies description." Some intelligence analysts relate Omar's statement to the visit of the two Pakistani scientists before the U.S. attack who presumably told their interlocutors how to assemble a "dirty bomb," or a blend of conventional explosives with radioactive materials.
After the liberation of Kabul and Kandahar, the CIA submitted to Mr. Musharraf a list of a half-dozen nuclear scientists it wanted probed for al Qaeda links. The two who had visited Kandahar before September 11, Suleiman Asad and Muhammad Ali Muktar, suddenly were working in Burma on undisclosed research, and therefore unavailable.
Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmud, former director of Pakistan's Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC), and Chief Engineer Chaudry Abdul Majeed had also befriended Taliban leaders, according to documents captured in Kabul.
Shortly before Enduring Freedom got under way Oct. 7, 2001, Mr. Musharraf dispatched to Kandahar the head of ISI, accompanied by some of Pakistan's politico-religious leaders, to urge Omar to give up Osama bin Laden and thus avoid an American attack. The ISI chief ignored Mr. Musharraf's orders and advised Omar not to surrender bin Laden. Mr. Musharraf fired him.
Two Pakistani generals — former army chief Gen. Aslam Beg — and former ISI chief Gen. Hamid Gul — are close to AQK and are believed to have been aware of his self-appointed mission to proliferate nuclear weapons knowledge to America's enemies. Gen. Gul once said he looked forward to the day when a truly Islamic state could be established — a new caliphate comprised of a nuclear arsenal and the oil resources of Iran and the Gulf after the demise of the Saudi royal family.
Islamist militants also see Iraq as a potential battlefield for a larger war of civilizations that Gen. Beg told UPI in December 2001 "is already upon us." The overall strategic objective of the AQK-Beg-Gul school of thinking is humiliation of the U.S., much as earlier was visited on the Soviets in Afghanistan.
While Mr. Musharraf was in the U.S. last June to reassure President Bush about his pro-American bona fides, his own chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, Gen. Mohammed Aziz Khan said, at a public meeting, "America is the No. 1 enemy of the Muslim world and is conspiring against Muslim nations all over the world." These are also the sentiments that inspire Pakistan's nuclear proliferation campaign. "To assume that only Dr. Khan and his No. 2., Muhammad Farooq, the head of overseas procurement, were involved is patently absurd," said a U.S. intelligence source who has served in Pakistan.
To avoid what could be a public trial embarrassing the Pakistani high command, including Mr. Musharraf himself, and ISI, the president persuaded AQK to fall on his sword. On Wednesday, Mr. Khan made a full groveling confession on TV about his global proliferating activities "that I did in good faith" but now realize "I was mistaken."
He absolved the government and military from any culpability. But this was unlikely to end the AQK saga. Next comes the unraveling of AQK's international nuclear black market, with operatives including Americans, Europeans, Arabs and Asians.