The government of Pakistan released A.Q. Khan from house arrest earlier this month. The former head of the country’s nuclear weapons uranium enrichment program had been detained since 2004, following revelations of his decades-long role as part of a nuclear black market selling nuclear technology, materials, and even nuclear weapon designs.
Washington responded with an awkward shuffle. When asked if, during his visit to Islamabad, White House Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke had expressed U.S. concerns about the release of Khan in his meetings with Pakistani leaders, State Department spokesman Robert Wood was at a loss:
QUESTION: I’d like to stay on Pakistan for a second. Do you know if he raised the A.Q. Khan issue?
MR. WOOD: Ambassador Holbrooke? I don’t know. It didn’t come up. I think — I wanted to get back to one issue. You —
QUESTION: When you say it didn’t come up, what do you mean? It didn’t come up in his conversations, or you just —
MR. WOOD: Well, like I said, I don’t —
QUESTION: — you don’t —
MR. WOOD: I don’t know.
The State Department spokesman finally said Khan had been discussed on the sidelines of a meeting in Munich a few days earlier, where “Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg met with Foreign Minister [Shah Mehmood] Qureshi…and expressed the U.S. government’s deep concern at the decision to release Khan. He sought assurances that the Pakistani government would take every step available to ensure that Mr. Khan did not pose a proliferation risk.”
It seems the United States was told ahead of time of Khan’s release. It had gone through the formal handwringing, but the White House chose not to do anything or even raise the matter directly with Pakistan’s leadership. The episode is another installment in a long-running saga in which domestic politics in Pakistan and changing U.S. geopolitical interests have trumped concerns about nuclear danger.
The circumstances surrounding Khan’s release reveal how Pakistan’s domestic politics undermines concerns about proliferation. The Pakistani government claims that a court released Khan. He had petitioned the court against his house arrest, and the court had summoned government records to decide if his incarceration was justified. Pakistan’s government settled out of court to minimize the damage from a legal examination of the charges of illicit nuclear trading, the terms of Khan’s house arrest, and the possibility of the court ordering his release.
The government feared both a negative judgment and what Khan might say if he got his day in court. That a deal was struck is evident from the way Khan profusely thanked the government’s key advisor, Rahman Malik, for his release. As part of the court order, Khan is forbidden to speak publicly about nuclear issues. The court order of his release also has a secret annex that reputedly establishes what Khan can and cannot do as a free man.
Khan no doubt has stories to tell. The world in particular is keen to know if Iran, Libya, and North Korea were the only countries Khan’s network supplied with nuclear technology, and if Khan was carrying out government policy or just making money. It has long been suspected that Libya and Iran bankrolled Pakistan’s nuclear program in the 1970s, and North Korea supplied missile technology to Pakistan in the 1980s and 1990s. But Iran and Libya weren’t the only countries that are supposed to have provided funding; Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries were also generous toward Pakistan. How Pakistan repaid them is a nagging question.
But for many in Pakistan, Khan is a national hero. It doesn’t matter that he helped bring the shadow of nuclear war to his country; rather, that’s his claim to fame and glory. For decades he cultivated an image as the man who defied the world to bring Pakistan the bomb, and presidents and prime ministers bolstered the claim by showering national honors on him. The Pakistani public viewed his house arrest as unjust and his release as welcome.
By freeing Khan, Pakistan’s embattled government sought to play to this audience and show independence from U.S. power and influence. At the heart of its crisis of legitimacy is the U.S. war against al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, a war widely opposed in Pakistan. Many Pakistanis believe that Pakistan fights this war because a craven and corrupt state has succumbed to U.S. pressure and inducements. They also believe that the elected government that replaced the military regime of General Pervez Musharraf is going along with this war.
It seems Pakistan’s leaders are concealing the extent of their cooperation in the war. Last year President Asif Ali Zardari spoke out forcefully against attacks on Pakistan by missiles from U.S. unmanned drones. He declared that “continuing drone attacks on our territory, which result in loss of precious lives and property, are counterproductive and difficult to explain by a democratically elected government. It is creating a credibility gap.” Senator Dianne Feinstein, chair of the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee, has said, however, that the drones “are flown out of a Pakistani base.” The gap between word and deed stands cruelly exposed.
Pakistan’s government would not have released Khan if it had believed that the United States would respond forcefully. Pakistani decision-makers have a keen sense of how the United States has blown hot and cold about Pakistan’s nuclear program over the last 30 years. They know that nuclear weapons proliferation only matters when the United States doesn’t have other important interests to pursue. Today, U.S. support for Pakistan’s weak government and the war against al-Qaeda and the Taliban take precedence.
Khan has been on the proliferation watch-list for 30 years. A 1979 Washington Post article identified him as a Pakistani engineer who had absconded four years earlier with lists of component manufacturers and “probably blueprints for the plant” from the uranium enrichment centrifuge facility at Almelo, Holland. Khan had returned to Pakistan and became director of the uranium enrichment project, located at Kahuta.
The Post article was clear about the Kahuta site, the facility there, and its purpose: “Behind an eight-foot-high stone wall near the sleepy town of Kahuta, 25 miles from Pakistan’s capital of Islamabad, a clock is ticking for mankind…Within three to five years by official United States estimate, and sooner in the reckoning of some, the heavily guarded industrial plant under construction there will produce enough highly enriched uranium for Pakistan to explode an atomic bomb.” It took five years: In 1984, Khan claimed Pakistan had produced enough highly enriched uranium for a bomb.
This success was made possible in turn by Khan’s access to a network of European, North American, and Japanese companies willing to supply critical components to Pakistan’s enrichment program. The scale of the effort was significant. Henk Slebos, a lifelong friend and key Khan supplier, claims he worked with “maybe even a thousand” European companies to acquire materials for Khan. For all of them, as one Japanese business man who sold to the network said, “the priority is to sell goods.”
During the 1970s and early 1980s, Khan made trips back to Holland and to other European countries. He was under surveillance and could have been arrested. But as accounts of his career make clear, the United States preferred to monitor Khan rather than stop him and on two occasions even stopped the Dutch government from arresting him. While the United States may have been gathering intelligence, the Dutch had their own motivations for not arresting Khan — they didn’t want a scandal involving Holland’s uranium enrichment program.
The United States finally sanctioned Pakistan in April 1979. But nine months later, the United States offered to waive these sanctions, and to provide guns and money to Pakistan. The Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan, and Washington believed it was more important to have Pakistan as an ally in the coming war. The war lasted almost 10 years. When it was over, Pakistan had the bomb.
Only when the Soviets left Afghanistan did the United States rediscover Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program and again impose sanctions. In 2001, the United States again lifted these sanctions to gain Pakistan’s support for the U.S. attack on Afghanistan. Since then, billions of dollars of military and economic aid have poured into Pakistan. The United States has even provided assistance to Pakistan’s effort to better secure its nuclear complex.
Pakistan’s decision-makers understand the nature of American politics. They have seen how, no matter who is in the White House or in Congress, U.S. concerns about proliferation, as well as democracy and human rights, take second place after making and maintaining alliances. In the case of Khan’s release, they have been proven right again.