“The most dangerous place on earth”

Elaborate, dual charade tumbles out in the open

Pakistan’s terror-exporting and nuclear-smuggling record has come full circle with its non-inquiry in the name of an inquiry into the Mumbai attacks and the release of A.Q. Khan

Brahma Chellaney

Asian Age, February 11, 2009

A key parallel can be drawn between the most dangerous nuclear-trafficking operation in history (innocuously labelled “the A.Q. Khan affair”) and Pakistani-fomented terrorism against India. In both cases, Islamabad has doggedly sought to shield the role of state institutions by pinning the blame on a few individuals. But neither occurrence could have been possible without the active involvement of its military and intelligence.

Quasi-failed Pakistan is where state-nurtured terrorism and state-reared nuclear smuggling uniquely intersect. While the Pakistani nuclear-weapons programme was founded on illicitly acquired blueprints and items from overseas, with Abdul Qadeer Khan as the spearhead, the instrument of transnational terrorism was fashioned by dictator Zia ul-Haq. But so addictive is illicit activity that the clandestine nuclear importers later took to covert exports, while some of the military-raised terrorist figures branched off into independent enterprise.

Little surprise thus that U.S. President Bill Clinton called Pakistan “the most dangerous place on earth,” while his successor, George W. Bush, said “this is wilder than the Wild West.” Yet this artificially created country, still in search of a national identity, has had a congenital problem facing up to the truth on its own actions. No sooner had Pakistan been established than it militarily invaded Kashmir but claimed the attackers were tribesmen. Such penchant to pursue aggression and denial in chorus continues to this day.

But truth chases those that run away from it. Pakistan’s broken promises of “transparent,” “time-bound” inquiry into the November 26-29 Mumbai terrorist assaults and the state-engineered circumstances of Khan’s recent release from five-year house detention blow the lid off the government cover-up. In both instances, concerted efforts to deny the involvement of any state agency have only helped point to the role of official institutions.

Take Khan. Restrictions on Khan had gradually lessened, but now the house-arrest pretence has ended with a court decision spurred on by a government submission — that Khan was not under formal house detention but merely under guard for his own security. The court thus ruled that with no charge and no detention order against him, Khan had the right to move freely.

If Khan was really the wayward scientist who almost singlehandedly sold Pakistan’s nuclear secrets to other renegade states, why was he never charged or even allowed to be questioned by international investigators? How come he was made to confess on national television at midnight, only to be instantaneously pardoned? The truth is that Khan was held incommunicado to shield him from international inquiry and to stop him from spilling the beans on the state’s role.

Now that international investigations have unravelled, he has been freed on the condition that he would not speak in public about the illicit ring, let alone implicate others as accomplices. As Khan’s Dutch-born wife has admitted, he will not be able to speak out as “part of an agreement that has been reached”.

Such a deal saves from exposure the plethora of accomplices that go right up to the top echelons of Pakistan’s political and military establishments. No wonder the Pakistani foreign ministry has peremptorily declared, “The so-called A.Q. Khan affair is a closed chapter.” But history’s worst nuclear scandal won’t go away that easily. That is because the cover-up extends far beyond Pakistan’s borders.

The ring was unearthed in 2003 after admittedly operating for 16 long years. Such was the extent of its transnational operations that blueprints of a Chinese-designed nuclear bomb supplied to Pakistan were found on computers in Switzerland and Dubai. Yet, with the much-touted international investigations in shambles, no significant figure in the ring has been convicted or put on trial.

The principal reason is that the U.S. has not been interested in fully investigating the network or in bringing the ringleaders to justice. Indeed, European allies have accused the U.S. of withholding crucial documents and seeking to suppress facts about a ring that may have shared nuclear secrets with more countries than just Libya, Iran and North Korea and, perhaps, with non-state actors as well.

Take the Swiss release last month of the two Tinner brothers, who along with their father were important conduits in the Pakistani ring. The Swiss government has played a double game: While saying Washington has withheld critical evidence needed to convict the three, it has admitted destroying — on national-security grounds dubbed specious by a parliamentary panel — thousands of files of evidence. One of the brothers, Urs Tinner, acknowledges that he had been working undercover for the CIA.

Or take the earlier disclosure that the CIA shielded Khan from arrest and prosecution in Europe in 1975 and 1986. The Dutch government, according to former Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers, did not take Khan into custody on the CIA’s plea that it wanted “to follow him.”


Khan was sentenced in absentia by Amsterdam judge Anita Leeser in 1983 to four years in prison for stealing enrichment secrets from the Netherlands to build Pakistan’s Kahuta plant. After the conviction was overturned on a technicality, the CIA apparently influenced the Dutch decision not to bring new charges against Khan, whose case files, according to judge Leeser, disappeared “on purpose.”


Just as the CIA has had cozy ties with the Inter-Services Intelligence — an agency it helped train and fatten — it shielded Khan for long, thereby assisting the underground Pakistani bomb programme for the very reason China aided Islamabad’s nuclear and missile ambitions. Now, the chickens have come home to roost. According to ex-CIA chief George Tenet’s 2007 book, At the Center of the Storm: My Years at the CIA, two senior Pakistani nuclear scientists, Bashiruddin Mahmoud (who once served as Khan’s boss) and Abdul Majeed, provided Al Qaeda with a rough sketch of a nuclear-bomb design.

Tellingly, the Obama White House’s reaction to Khan’s release has not been to seek his re-arrest or to reverse the Bush administration’s kid-gloves approach by demanding that Islamabad allow the International Atomic Energy Agency to interrogate Khan about his past activities. Rather, it has merely sought assurances on what seems inconceivable — that Khan “is not engaged or involved in any of the activity that resulted in his house arrest earlier.”

Now consider Pakistan’s non-inquiry in the name of an inquiry into the Mumbai attacks. After weeks of alleged investigations and misleading clues planted in the media, it has ingeniously sought to buy time ad infinitum by declaring that “without substantial evidence from India, it will be exceedingly difficult to complete the investigation and proceed with the case.” It believes it can hide from the damming evidence that the coordinators of the Mumbai strikes, like the organizers of the Indian embassy bombing in Kabul, “remain clients and creations of the ISI,” in the words of the Indian foreign secretary.

However vexing the denouement, the non-investigation of the Mumbai attacks and the release of the central figure in the nuclear-smuggling ring prove that Pakistan is seeking to neither be a normal state nor adhere to international norms of civilized behaviour. Indeed, by getting Khan to claim sole responsibility for the ring in his 2004 teary-eyed confession and by presenting the two Mumbai-attack planners, Zarrar Shah and Zaki ur-Rehman Lakhvi, as independent operators, Islamabad has laid bare its objective: Make a few individuals the fall guys to help preserve its illicit-activities infrastructure.

The Pakistani system is bound to produce more A.Q. Khans, Zarrar Shahs and Lakhvis unless it is thoroughly reformed, including by bringing the military, intelligence and nuclear establishments under civilian oversight, as is the custom in any normal country.

(c) Asian Age, 2009.

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