Yesterday, media outlets reported that sanctions have been placed on 13 people and three companies “for their involvement in the A.Q. Khan nuclear proliferation network.” AQ Khan is, of course, the father of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb, although he allegedly operated an international black market in nuclear material to a number of states with a history of poor relations with the United States. He was arrested for these connections in February 2004, but was eventually pardoned by former President Musharraf, [see related piece on AQ Khan]. CNN cited a U.S. State Department statement that noted the sanctions, which follow a U.S. review of the network, “will help prevent future proliferation-related activities by these private entities, provide a warning to other would-be proliferators, and demonstrate our ongoing commitment to using all available tools to address proliferation-related activities.” The statement added, “While we believe the A.Q. Khan network is no longer operating, countries should remain vigilant to ensure that Khan network associates, or others seeking to pursue similar proliferation activities, will not become a future source for sensitive nuclear information or equipment.”
According to the Associated Press, “Most of those sanctioned have for years been mentioned in the media over their links to Khan: Turkish businessman Selim Alguadis and his firm EKA Elektronik Kontrol Aletleri Sanayi ve Ticaret AS, Pakistani scientists Muhammad Farooq and Muhammad Nasim ud Din, Sri Lankan scientist Buhary Seyyed Abu Tahor, German engineers Gerhard Wisser and Gotthard Lerch, Swiss engineer Daniel Geiges and British businessmen and brothers Paul and Peter Griffin.” The AP added in its coverage, “In line with a number of US laws and decrees, the sanctions bar these individuals and firms from obtaining any private or government loans and forbid the US government from having any commercial links with them.”
News of this development comes just days after the NY Times released an article by David Sanger on Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities. Entitled, “Obama’s Worst Pakistan Nightmare,” the sub-heading read, “The biggest fear is not jihadists taking control of the border regions. It’s what happens if the country’s nuclear arsenal falls into the wrong hands.” With President-elect Barack Obama‘s inauguration fast-approaching, President Bush‘s aides reportedly gave Obama’s transition team a lengthy review of policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan, concluding that in the end, “the United States has far more at stake in preventing Pakistan’s collapse than it does in stabilizing Afghanistan or Iraq.” An author of the report told Sanger, “Only one of those countries has a hundred nuclear weapons.” For Al Qaeda and the other Islamists, he went on to say, “this is the home game.”
Sanger wrote about one nuclear scientist, Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood, who was reportedly facinated by the connections between science and the Holy Quran. The NY Times reporter noted, “While [A.Q] Khan appeared to be in the nuclear-proliferation business chiefly for the money, Mahmood made it clear to friends that his interest was religious: Pakistan’s bomb, he told associates, was “the property of a whole Ummah,” referring to the worldwide Muslim community. He wanted to share it with those who might speed “the end of days” and lead the way for Islam to rise as the dominant religious force in the world.” Although Mahmood was “forced” to take an early retirement in 1999, he soon set up an Islamic charity, Ummah Tameer-e-Nau, and reportedly met with Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, in August 2001, a month before the 9/11 attacks. Sanger noted, “There is little doubt that Mahmood talked to the two Qaeda leaders about nuclear weapons, or that Al Qaeda desperately wanted the bomb.” In order to quell rising U.S. panic, Musharraf arrested Mahmood, and, although he was never prosecuted, is still under house arrest today, reportedly under “tight surveillance.”
The article, adapted from Sanger’s new book, The Inheritance: The World Obama Confronts and the Challenges to American Power, is likely to further justify U.S. fears about Pakistan. The nuclear angle has recently gained traction with Pakistan’s increased security issues, as well as with the rising Indo-Pak tensions in the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks. A U.S. official said he worries what would happen if Pakistan moved its nuclear weapons, explaining that the “United States feared that some groups could try to provoke a confrontation between Pakistan and India in the hope that the Pakistani military would transport tactical nuclear weapons closer to the front lines, where they would be more vulnerable to seizure.”
However, let’s take such fears with a grain of salt – could it be a case of overblown rhetoric? Today, Ejaz Haider at the Daily Times took issue with Sanger’s piece. Although he said he would not entirely fault Sanger or his U.S. government sources “for conjuring up worst-case scenarios regarding Pakistan’s strategic arsenal,” since they are looking at the world through the “American ideological prism,” he noted that “there is much wrong with the U.S./Sanger approach.” Haider assessed:
Sanger’s piece, for obvious reasons, conveniently ignores Pakistan’s doctrinal position on nuclear deterrence and the fact that a conventional force build-up cannot and should not be assumed to lead to an automatic escalation to the nuclear dimension even if one or both sides are wedded to “first use” (Kargil and the 2001-2002 standoff are cases in point).
But the fact is that while nuclear weapons are irrelevant to fighting asymmetric and irregular conflicts — and this is true for possession of such weapons by all nuclear-weapons states — nuclear weapons do provide the inter-state balance of terror. If there has been no war between India and Pakistan following Mumbai, much of the credit for that must be given to where it belongs.
Ultimately, the topic draws up an interesting debate on whether the possession of nuclear weapons is a deterrent or a threat for future conflict. Both Pakistan and India have owned nuclear weapons for some time now – that is the reality. Have the posession of these weapons deterred open warfare between our countries? I’ll leave you with a brilliant line from Ejaz Haider’s op-ed: “…As should be evident from Sanger’s own quote of Robert Gates — “there is no human vetting system that is entirely reliable” — the Pakistani nuclear arsenal is as safe or unsafe as the U.S. arsenal. As they say about “foolproof”, for every proof there is always a fool.” [Image from the NY Times]