September 9, 2009

The Wrath of Khan

Dr. AQ Khan has some Che Guevara in him, a villain and hero, rogue and savior. The schism he’s created is unlikely to ever mend, but this gulf is losing relevance. Pakistan’s nuclear father has taken a beating from Western governments and the media: anxiety from NPR, anger at the WSJ, the latest scathing NYT editorial. Just last week an anonymous State Department official said, “We believe he remains a serious proliferation risk.”

But he who laughs last laughs loudest.

Dr. Khan’s statements are difficult to take at face value given a history of doublespeak and forced confessions. He also has a strong motive for revenge after being so heavily targeted by the West, but his account of Pakistan's nuclear program is impossible to ignore after hearing his version of history. America is likely do to everything possible to cover up his story since it contradicts American law, strategy, and common sense.

“I maintain that the war [Soviet invasion of Afghanistan] had provided us with space to enhance our nuclear capability," Dr. Khan said in a recent interview to AJJ TV. “Given the US and European pressure on our program, it is true that had the Afghan war not taken place at that time, we would not have been able to make the bomb as early as we did.”

Dr. Khan’s testimony punches a hole through US policy in Pakistan, turning deep flaws into abysmal disasters. America had legislated laws to prohibit military and economic transfers, excluding humanitarian aid, to countries developing or possessing nuclear weapons outside of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The $3.1 billion in economic assistance and $2.19 billion in military assistance America gave to Pakistan from 1980 until 1990 was made possible only by executive waivers. Ronald Reagan claimed he had no verification of a Pakistani bomb, as did George Bush until the war ended allowing him to pull the plug.

Contrary to estimates that Pakistan was developing nuclear weapons throughout the 1980’s, Dr. Khan claims the first bomb was ready for testing in 1983.

Dr. Khan went beyond duty to his country if he actually proliferated nuclear material to Iran, Libya, and North Korea. But his recklessness was equally matched by American policy, played first by the Mujahideen and then the real puppet master, Pakistan President and General Zia. Some Pakistani officials questioned the cost of a nuclear program and consequence in an impoverished country. America halted aid in 1979 under the Symington Amendment, but once Pakistan persuaded American officials that it would help fight the Soviets, $3 billion was on the way by 1981. Pakistani skeptics eased off their concerns with this new found cash flow.

“We were allying with the United States in the Afghan war,” he said. “The aid was coming. We asked General Zia and his team to go ahead with the test, but they said they could not conduct the test as it would have serious repercussions. They argued that since the United States had to overlook our nuclear program due to our support in the Afghan war, it was an opportunity for us to further develop the program. They said the tests could be conducted any time later.”

America had abandoned its laws as soon as self-interest encroached, rationality obliterated by desperation. The American people were lied to each time the president claimed Pakistan wasn’t developing or possessive of nuclear weapons, contrary to intelligence reports and compromising regional and global security for personal gain. A destabilized Afghanistan would be the final nail in the Soviet coffin, but it spawned 9/11 and seemingly infinite nightmares in Asia.

America sacrificed the long term for the short term at every turn. Nuclear transfers to Iran and potentially North Korea were the price of a Soviet defeat. Aid to Pakistan was terminated almost as soon as the war ended resulting in a lost decade of US-Pakistan relations that haunts the region. Not only did Pakistan’s feeling of isolation lead to present ties between the ISI and the Taliban, China emerged as a new source of nuclear material and a growing threat to US influence. America became distracted as it often does, unable to simultaneously wage war in Afghanistan and police Pakistan’s nuclear program, to look near and far.

“They could not outmaneuver us,” Dr. Khan said of US inspections, “as we remained a step ahead always.”

An earlier discovery would've been useless anyway with America so reliant on Pakistani support against the Soviets. Sadly this type of relationship has been mimicked, not rectified, in the future. America came roaring back to Pakistan after 9/11 and essentially took over after a “with us or against us” ultimatum. Musharraf would aid America’s fight against al-Qaeda and the Taliban in return for domestic political cover. Short term necessity eventually led to a meltdown in Pakistani politics and resulted in a whole new wave of anti-American sentiment targeted at US support for Musharraf. Now Pakistan’s future is shrouded in darkness.

Is Dr. Khan a proliferator? Maybe, though he claims Musharraf was the “Big Boss” and himself the scapegoat. But his testimony reveals the latest failings in the US-Pakistani saga, that America is complicit of Pakistan's nuclear weapons. Observe the results 20 years later: a resurgent Russia, chaos in Afghanistan, hatred in Pakistan, nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea, all for a war America eventually became mired in itself.

Never has the need been higher for foresight in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Now American officials have swung to the opposite extreme, promising long term commitments when Afghans and Pakistanis want America to fix the problems it created and leave the region. Khan, a free man, is probably laughing in the shadows. His mission is over while America’s is just beginning.

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