This book by two prominent British journalists sets out as an indictment of the major Western powers, especially the United States, for supposedly deceiving the world about Pakistan’s secret nuclear programme. The word ‘ conspiracy’ in the book’s subtitle makes that intention even clearer.
Nevertheless, happily for the reader, the book does not emerge as just another anti-American tract with which some Western intellectuals like to indulge in self-flagellation. Despite their stated intention, and thanks to painstaking research the two authors show that, once India had acquired a military nuclear capability, no power on earth could have stopped Pakistan from securing its own deterrent.
The central figure in this book, which at times reads like a thriller, is one Abdul Qadeer Khan, the scientist now known as the Father of the Pakistani Atomic Bomb.
One could read and interpret A.Q. Khan’s complex character in a variety of ways. At one level, he appears as a self-serving opportunist, ready to lie and cheat his way up the social ladder. At another, he is a Pakistani patriot anxious to ensure his nation’s military parity with its eternal foe India.
But then, one could also see A.Q. Khan as a greedy black marketeer who sold nuclear secrets to a number of controversial states, including North Korea, Burma, and Libya, not to mention the Islamic Republic in Tehran, in exchange for cash deposits in his secret bank accounts.
It is quite possible that A.Q. Khan was all of those things at different times. What is certain, however, is that the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, written by nations that had already built an arsenal of atomic weapons could not have prevented any country from seeking the forbidden fruit of modern science.
Since the NPT was negotiated in the late 1960s, a number of countries that refused to sign it have gone nuclear, so to speak. These include China, France, Israel, India and Pakistan. Other countries that did acquire a military nuclear capability decided to abandon their programmes. (These include Brazil, Argentina, Libya and South Africa.)
Today, Iran and North Korea are accused of trying to develop nuclear weapons. The book shows that both benefited from the help given them by A. Q. Khan. The question is whether the Pakistani scientist was acting alone and for his sole personal profit or sold the technology, along with some hardware, on instructions from his political bosses in Islamabad.
However, the scale of the operations that A.Q Khan conducted over more than a decade was such that it is almost impossible to believe that no one in the Pakistani government knew about them.
In the specific case of Libya, the authors show that Colonel Muammar Gaddafy had volunteered to finance Pakistan’s “Islamic Bomb” as early as 1971.
The most disturbing part of the book consists of chapters dealing with a possible proliferation of nuclear technology to terrorist groups, especially Al Qaeda. The authors provide a mass of
circumstantial evidence, including documents seized in Al Qaeda hideouts in Afghanistan, to demonstrate that such an event is far from fanciful. It is no secret that many figures in the Pakistani military intelligence were and remain sympathetic to Al Qaeda and the Taliban and may well remain in touch with terrorist circles in the region.
Perhaps the most important, and dangerous, achievement of A.Q. Khan and his team was the sharp reduction in the cost of making an atomic bomb. Initially, Pakistan had followed India in trying to build a bomb with plutonium. India’s first bomb cost a cool $1.2 billion to design and manufacture. A. Q Khan, making his bomb with enriched uranium, needed much less money. At one point, he estimated that each atomic bomb made with enriched uranium would cost around $60,000, something that any terrorist organization worth its salt could easily afford.
It was also partly thanks to A.Q Khan that Iran, which had started with a plutonium project and built a special heavy water plant at Arak, west of Tehran, switched to enriched uranium in the mid-1990s. The switch means that Iran, should it want to build atomic bombs, could do so at a fraction of the cost initially envisaged.
While “Deception” is both readable and authoritative on A. Q Khan’s career, and the possible implication of Pakistani authorities in selling nuclear technology to “rogue states”, it is less so when it comes to President Pervez Musharraf’s alleged complicity in protecting Al Qaeda leaders, notably Osama bin Laden.
There is no doubt that the Pakistani ruling elite under Musharraf has been “ambivalent” vis-à-vis the Taliban for reasons of realpolitik. Islamabad thinks that, having invested so much in flushing the Soviets out of Afghanistan, it has ended up with no influence in Kabul. Thus, the Pakistani military want to keep channels open to at least part of the Taliban as a means of exerting pressure on Hamid Karzai’s openly anti-Pakistani government. That, however, does not mean that Osama bin Laden is living in Pakistan “under the protection of he Pakistani military”, as the authors suggest. The authors are also wrong in describing the Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan as “lawless”. (Perhaps, they meant the South Waziristan enclave in the Federal Administered Area.)
The book has three key messages.
First, the NPT does not work and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has become irrelevant. Secondly, the possibility of nuclear weapons falling into terrorist hands cannot be discounted. Finally, Pakistan remains a very dangerous place, a country where terrorism, nuclear proliferation, drug smuggling and military rule make up for a deadly cocktail.
Levy and Scott-Clark warn: “It will only be a matter of time before the rising tide of Islamic extremism and the fast flowing current of nuclear exports find common cause and realize their apocalyptic intent. There are plenty of ideologues, thinkers and Isalmic strategists who are working towards precisely that goal, and here is a regime in Islamabad that has no hard and fast rules, no unambiguous goals or laws, and no line that cannot be bent or reshaped.”
On this last point, the hope is that Pakistan’s general election, to be held on 18 February, would help change the mix by producing a democratic civilian government based on the rule of law.