Out of the Nuclear Loop

Stephen P. Cohen
Stephen P. Cohen
Stephen P. Cohen Former Brookings Expert

February 16, 2004

The news coming out of Pakistan seems more like the stuff of bad fiction: a rogue scientist selling secrets to other countries; an emotional staged confession; a president who claims to be in the dark about it all. The reality, of course, is that the scientist, Abdul Qadeer Khan, did sell nuclear technology. And Washington has accepted the explanation of Pakistan’s president, Pervez Musharraf, that Dr. Khan was acting on his own when he did so.

Dr. Khan’s confession suits both Pakistan and America, since rounding up Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders (many may be hiding in Pakistan) trumps other concerns. But it is widely believed in Pakistan and elsewhere that the government knew of Dr. Khan’s activities. This would make President Musharraf, as well as army and intelligence services, complicit in the nuclear crime of the century.

As improbable as it may seem, though, President Musharraf may, for once, be telling the truth. But the fact that this rogue operation could have been mostly unknown to the Islamabad government and its army should trouble the world even more—and propel Washington into rethinking its policies toward Pakistan.

Strategically, it is unlikely that the Pakistani Army—let alone intelligence officials—would have directed Dr. Khan to sell nuclear secrets to North Korea, Libya and Iraq. Why? It is more important for Pakistan to keep good relations with China than with North Korea, and selling to North Korea certainly angered the Chinese. As for Libya and Iraq, Pakistani strategists knew that helping a Middle Eastern state acquire nuclear weapons would bring the wrath of the Israelis.

Dr. Khan, on the other hand, was no strategist. His claim to fame was as a metallurgist who perfected the rotors on the centrifuge design that he stole from a Dutch plant. He was also part of Pakistan’s global technology theft network, which was organized by the government in the 1970’s. Dr. Khan eventually expanded his operation to include sales of technology. He set up a call center, where ambitious nuclear powers might dial in and get help on building a bomb. An egomaniac, Dr. Khan also mastered the Pakistani press and in the process transformed himself into a national hero.

The problem, then, was not that the army knew about his escapades (although it might have had some inkling), but that it was not powerful enough to clamp down on him or contend with the public anger afterward. As a result, part of Pakistan’s nuclear program may have been out of the effective reach of all government officials, civil and military.

Much of the problem is rooted in the nature of the Pakistani state. President Musharraf claims he is moving his country toward democracy, but few signs exist. Yet under his rule, Pakistan is failing as an autocracy. After all, any tightly run autocracy would not have allowed Dr. Khan the freedom to travel and sell the crown jewels. In the army, General Musharraf was known as a man who didn’t care for details. He is a bad listener, and has an exaggerated opinion of his own abilities.

Which makes America’s relationship with him all the more perilous. So far, Washington has stood by General Musharraf, who is considered a crucial ally in the campaign against terrorism. In doing so, it has placed its bets on a man who is, at best, well intentioned, but who may be in over his head. Washington’s current policy is to accept General Musharraf for what he is, and continue the flow of economic and military aid to this problematic state.

But given that Dr. Khan remains popular and that his activities took place under a civilian government, it would be foolish to press Pakistan to return to a comprehensive democracy right away. Instead, the army needs to withdraw gradually from politics and civilian life. As for General Musharraf, he needs to publicly accept responsibility for the nuclear fiasco and be honest about his own limitations. He might even gain stature by doing so.

Most important, Washington must demand that Pakistan’s government and army regain control of its nuclear program—and make any aid contingent on that. The only Pakistan officials who know nuclear strategy and have a grasp of diplomacy are in the army. The bomb is no doubt safer in their hands than in those of another feeble civilian government. So far, we’ve been asking the wrong question. It’s not whether President Musharraf and his army knew of Dr. Khan’s activities—but why they didn’t.