Sunday, June 03, 2007

An Old Story Re-Visited-AQ KHAN'S TRAIL

Misplaced Priorities?



On December 2, 2004 a high level United Nations panel issued a warning of diminishing international barriers to the acquisition of nuclear weapons. The 16 member panel that included former United States security advisor Brent Scowcroft, had been commissioned by UN Secretary Kofi Anan.

Titled “High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change”, the report warns that the world is “approaching a point at which the erosion of the non-proliferation regime could become irreversible resulting in a cascade of nuclear weapon proliferation.” The report points out barrier breakdowns that increase the likelihood of terrorists obtaining nuclear weapons.

The UN report confirmed that the list of nuclear-armed nations was growing. It also become clear that one of America’s allies in the war on terror, Pakistan, had been the main supplier of these products of mass destruction, which in the end, created a complicated, tense yet apparently necessary relationship between the two nations.

In the course of just a few years, as the United States responded to the events of 9/11, the world had become a more lethal place. The idea of clearly defined, traceable and easily identified possessors of weapons of mass destruction had become increasingly blurred.

“The nuclear barriers may not be crumbling, but there are certainly worrisome cracks” said Mellissa Flemming, spokesperson at the International Atomic Energy Association in Vienna.

Flemming said that when the IAEA discovered “a sophisticated black market in nuclear technology, we realized that nuclear technology was basically up for grabs.”

According to a number of sources, one major base of this new international nuclear bazaar was perhaps one of the United States' closest allies.

In October 2003, The Italian Coast Guard seized a German flagged ship named the BBC China. On board, authorities found aluminum tubes, molecular pumps and gas centrifuges allegedly meant for enriching uranium for Nuclear weaponry.

That vessel was headed for Libya.

That same year, authorities eventually traced the technology and equipment back to Pakistan.

It was in 2003 that Pakistani Scientist, Dr. A.Q. Khan had been identified as a major player in the nuclear black market. In February 2004, IAEA officials said Khan had sold technology and equipment to companies in at least five countries, including Iran. Khan, known as the “father” of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb, confessed his actions but was almost immediately pardoned by President Pervaz Musharaf.

Pakistani officials placed Khan, a hero to many Pakistanis for his role in equalizing the nuclear playing field with India, under house arrest. Officials there have not allowed any foreign interrogators access to Khan, some say, because of potential internal outcry from that country’s citizens.

The exposure of an open clandestine nuclear market was chilling to a number of experts.

“Khan’s black market nuclear bazaar exposed a leaky export control system and willingness for customers like Libya and Iran to clandestinely pay millions of dollars for sensitive centrifuge parts” according to IAEA’s Mellisa Flemming.

The 2004 UN report reflects the concern felt by nuclear proliferation experts around the world. According to one of the world’s leading proliferation experts, this could lead to a very troubling outcome that includes increasing threat of tangible nuclear terrorism.

“It is inevitable that we will see a terrorist with nuclear capability within the next decade” according to Joseph Cirincione, Director of the Non Proliferation Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

Cirincione backs up the UN report’s warnings that barrier breakdowns like the one illustrated through the Khan network, increase the likelihood of a terrorist with nuclear capabilities.

“There are groups out there intent on mass destruction” warned Cirincione of terrorist groups who actively seek out nuclear weaponry.

But, Mellisa Flemming at the IAEA, cautions against jumping to dire conclusions. She says the technology involved in making a nuclear weapon may be beyond the capabilities of a terrorist network.

“Whether terrorists, without the backing of a country, could make use of the goods on offer is questionable” said Flemming.

She notes that the centrifuge parts and designs of the kind that Khan was selling, require a tremendous amount of money and expertise to master. Further, there is the challenge of obtaining the nuclear material itself.

“Nuclear material is the required ingredient, and it does leave trails” insisting “there is no evidence of non-state actors who were customers” said Flemming.

But, that doesn’t appease the concerns of a number of leaders, including a New York congresswoman who expresses concern about the dangerous black market activities of Dr. Khan and Pakistan.

“It would be na├»ve and dangerous to assume that terrorists are incapable of acquiring nuclear materials or weapons, whether from a rouge nation, or on the black market, or by theft” said New York Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez.

She believes that U.S. officials should still be in direct contact with Pakistani scientists, especially those associated with Khan, and persuade them to reveal a detailed and complete trail of his role in nuclear technology proliferation.

“The more we know about this black market network, the more likely we are to prevent nuclear material from falling into the wrong hands” said Congresswoman Velazquez.

However, Pakistani officials claim that the network has been completely destroyed and that they are offering a full accounting of the trail of proliferation.

“The government of Pakistan has completely broken the ring of A.Q. Khan’s networkand Pakistan has provided all details to the IAEA” according to Haroon Shaukat, Consul General of the Pakistani Embassy in New York.

From the perspective of the IAEA, Pakistan has been cooperating and providing valuable information on the those on the receiving end of Kahn’s market.

“We are presently working out modalities with them to get more information” said Flemming.

But, as to whether or not, the United States should exert greater pressure on Pakistani leaders to obtain direct access to Khan, Flemming is ambivalent.

“We are not in a position to judge US policy on this issue.”

Even still, one of the more puzzling aspects of the Khan tale was his rapid pardon by President Pervaz Musharaf. Khan, one of the most instrumental and known figures in the spread of nuclear technology to nations some consider hostile to western interests, is now under house arrest, and not available for any sort of interrogation by anyone outside of Pakistan.

Some observers find this suspicious.

“The confession and quick pardon of Khan was staged” said Joe Cirincione at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Cirincione says US officials have not been able to question Khan directly because of internal politics in Pakistan.

He goes on to say that the “staged confession” and the house arrest is part of a greater cover-up meant to protect military officials who may have known or even participated in the sales of nuclear technology.

“It is inconceivable that this was a private citizen affair” and that the nuclear proliferation conducted by Khan “could not have been done without the knowledge of military and political officials” said Cirincione.

“There was a deal for Khan to take the blame in public, and that’s why we saw the fastest pardon since Gerald Ford pardoned Nixon.”

Khan’s network of proliferation was vast. It involved the shipping of materials through a large distribution network that reached far beyond clandestine labs and backrooms and countries beyond Pakistan. It would strike many as an obvious point of urgent interest for United States intelligence officials.

But the State Department, at least publicly, has not confronted Pakistan’s alleged complicity.

Cirincione’s claims, as well as other evidences of a larger network are dismissed by the State Department and other officials who argue the fragile alliance with Pakistan is more important considering that country’s role in the fight against terrorism by extremist factions.

“It is more fruitful for the United States to work through diplomatic channels with Pakistani officials in the matter of the Khan black market network” according to Sara Styker, Asia Expert at the State Department.

According to the State Department’s Stryker, “the cooperation US officials have received from Pakistani officials has helped us in eliciting vital information” and that “we are now focused on results”. Stryker points to success in Libya, as evidence that the information provided by Pakistan has been helpful in disarming dangerous nations and stopping nuclear proliferation. She says she understands concerns like those expressed by Cirincione, but notes that Khan is under house arrest, and out of the proliferation business.

Indeed, after the exposure of the Kahn network, Libya opened itself up for nuclear weaponry inspection and pledge cooperation with western interests.

Cirincione still has serious doubts. “The Bush administration apparently believes the Pakistanis have done all they can do” and “I take that as a very troubling sign that we are not doing all that we should be doing.”

Cirincione says that “while the Bush administration was focused on the Axis of Evil, we should have been paying attention to our ally, Pakistan.” “If it was not for Pakistan, Iran would not have nuclear technology now, the same holds true for Lybia, maybe others” said Cirincione. He argues that the US placed other security issues, including President Musharaf’s stability, above our own real security issues. “We’ve placed nuclear proliferation second” and “that has come back to haunt us in the past, and I think it will again this time”. Edit Text

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