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Published in the 1-15 Mar 2004 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

Pakistan's nuclear dilemma: pride or shame?
By Karamatullah K. Ghori

For millions of Pakistanis, at home and abroad, the humiliation forced on the 'father' of Pakistan's nuclear bomb, Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, by the country's besotted military rulers has left a festering sore on their psyche. 

Pakistan's nuclear scandal has dominated media headlines throughout the world. Not only the nature of the scandal was sensational in itselfl-the stuff news 'scoops' are made of-but the manner in which the Pakistani rulers systemically went about exposing the names and 'misdeeds' of some of the brightest scientists the country has stirred unprecedented global interest in the unfolding drama. Even a layman unfamiliar with the Byzantine nature of the Pakistani ruling elite and their foibles could plainly see that the rulers were out to make sacrificial lambs of the scientists. The intensity of the blame game and the obvious relish with which names were named and exposed gave away the rulers' macabre Machiavellian game. They didn't mind at all throwing their brightest minds to the wolves in order to save their own skins.

But for the bemused and overly perplexed people of Pakistan this whole nightmarish experience reopened wounds inflicted on their body politic during the crisis of 1971, which climaxed in the truncation of Pakistan and the birth of independent Bangladesh. Arguably, Pakistan plunging into this nuclear crisis has been the worst national trauma for its people since the civil war of 1971, with one difference: the ramifications of this latest crisis could, potentially, be far graver and worse.

Pakistan's much-ballyhooed nuclear programme has been controversial from its day one.

The real 'father' of Pakistan's bomb was Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, the charismatic politician who came to power on the ashes of united Pakistan. To him the Pakistani bomb was supposed to be the ultimate equalizer in the battle of wits and wills with arch-rival India which had stolen a march on Pakistan by its nuclear explosion of 1974. But to the wily Bhutto, whose obsession with power was compulsive, the bomb was supposed to be much more than a mere strategic or tactical equalizer. He saw it as the ultimate instrument of power. A megalomaniac that he was, Bhutto thought the bomb, under his command, would give him a decisive and unassailable edge to keep the Pakistan military's Bonapartes in their place. 

There was another, supra-Pakistan, element factored in Bhutto's rationale of the bomb. He fervently coveted to become the leader and champion of the Islamic world and saw in the bomb the requisite extra perk essential to claim the Ummah's mantle of leadership. A nuclear Pakistan would tower above the rest of the Islamic countries to earn their approval for leadership, ungrudgingly. Once that title was won, no Bonaparte in Pakistan would dare to challenge him for the leadership mantle.

Well the Bonapartes had other ideas. In the end, they still managed to hoodwink Bhutto and hang him after toppling him. Since then Pakistan's nuclear programme has remained an exclusive preserve of the military brass which has guarded this fiefdom as jealously as its other monopoly of political power in the country.

Bhutto's military succesor, or usurper, General Ziaul Haq was sworn to dismantle every legacy of Bhutto save the nuclear. He,too, dreamed of leading the Islamic world, even though he was loathed by the likes of Qaddafi, Hafez Al Assad and Yassir Arafat in the Arab Steadfast Front for having hanged their Pakistani counterpart and fellow-traveller, Bhutto.

But Zia's vision of leading the Islamic world was different from Bhutto's. It was more of an inclusivist vision , rather than Bhutto's exclusivist version. Bhutto saw himself as a titan, a giant among his peers, towering above the rest of the pack. Zia was more humble and down-to-earth. He wanted to carry the whole Islamic camp with him, rather than behind him as in Bhutto's case. So Zia didn't mind the western world drumming up a hostile propaganda against Pakistan's Islamic bomb. In fact, on a number of occasions he betrayed his desire to use Pakistan's nuclear know-how for the benefit of the Ummah.

This template of solidarity with the larger Islamic world also inspired and motivated the likes of Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan who came back to Pakistan in 1975 from Holland, with all the knowledge of how to make a bomb in his head and brief case. A mohajir from Bhopal, he too was loaded with the idealistic baggage of serving the country his elders had carved out after a lot of struggle and sacrifice. In this zealotry of idealism charting his course, he was no different from millions of those, mohajirs, like him who idolized Pakistan as the fulfilment of a dream and the personification of an ideal. Pan-Islamism was an inseparable attribute of this idealistic notion.

The debate stirring and agitating so many minds in Pakistan, and the world beyond its shores, why Qadeer spread the nuclear know-how, if at all he did, has to be rationalised against this perspective. Qadeer belongs to that shrinking generation of Pakistanis who still lay so much store by the ideal of Pakistan, despite all the historical accidents that have disfigured the ideal. But , then, he and his camp followers are in a distinct minority in the country and have been losing their strength by the day.

That is not the case with the majority population in the country, and especially with its ruling elite which has hailed largely, since the demise of East Pakistan, from the majority province of Punjab. The Pakistan Army's top brass also belongs to the predominant Punjab province and has long been in league with its civilian component in sharing the spoils of being rulers of the land. This ruling class does not suffer from the idealistic or Pan-Islamic syndrome afflicting the likes of Dr. Qadeer.

It is a fact of history that Punjabi Muslims, throughout the millennium of Muslim dynastic rule in India, never belonged to the ruling elites of their land. The rise of Pakistan provided them this opportunity for the first time, and they seized it with both hands. The Bengalis of East Pakistan were encouraged, in fact forced, to secede from Pakistan because with them around, the Punjabis stood no chance of calling the shots in a united Pakistan.

This obvious dichotomy of ideals or idealism explains why the generals who have arrogated to themselves the privilege to lord over Pakistan's ideology and land borders, had no compunction in feeding Qadeer and his cohorts to the vultures circling over Pakistan in the throws of this latest crisis. They must have been goaded on to this callous course by the essential dictate of raw power: the hangman's noose belongs to the weakest. They didn't shy away from stringing up a prime minister to ensure their monopoly of power; Qadeer is but a smaller fry.

General Parvaiz Musharraf, Pakistan's current Bonaparte, may not, ethnically, belong to the ruling class. But because of this, he has not only to keep looking over his shoulder all the time but must also prove by his action that he is more catholic than the pope. In him the ruling class has a sure bet who dare not act against the well-entrenched status quo.

It is also a fact that for some time past, there had been an unwitting personality clash in the making between Musharraf and Qadeer. The rise of Dr. Abul Kalam, father of India's bomb, to the largely ceremonial position of India's President, contributed to the gulf. The people of Pakistan-to whom Qadeer was a genuine hero and Musharraf only an interloper who had eased himself into power-had started quipping that if Abul Kalam could become India's head of state why couldn't the same honour be bestowed on Qadeer? This innocuous parallel between two unassuming scientists was too much for the arrogance of the Pakistani generals, spearheaded by Musharraf. Qadeer, unbeknown to him, became an 'enemy' to the rulers and a thorn in their flesh.
Musharraf had other 'compulsions' to tick off Qadeer.

The outspoken Qadeer offended Musharraf's mentors in Washington by not hedging his bets on Pan-Islamic unity and fraternity. At their intervention, Musharraf had eased Qadeer out of the Kahuta Laboratories and kicked him upstairs in an ineffective position of 'adviser' to the then Chief Executive ( which was Musharraf himself ) and subsequently to the prime minister. But even this obvious demotion didn't tarnish Qadeer's aura with the people of Pakistan who still revered him as a national hero.

Making Qadeer the fall guy in this latest turn in Pakistan's nuclear episode serves Musharraf's political interest, especially vis--vis his mentor, George W. Bush who had been leaning for some time on him-at least for public consumption-to ease up on politicians and bring in more democracy into his tightly controlled autocratic order in Pakistan. Musharraf can now tell Bush that his interests in Pakistan-which are considerable at the moment, especially in the context of Afghanistan-would only be safe with him and his military colleagues rather than with irresponsible and untrustworthy civilians.

Musharraf's strategy seems to be working, at least in this early, post-Qadeer period. Political pundits of all stripes in Washington have started singing the chorus that U.S. interest is safer with Musharraf, their front-line soldier in the 'war' on terror. Stephen Cohen, a guru among these pundits, who heads the Centre for Strategic Research-a conservative Washington think-tank-and is ranked as an expert on the Pakistan military, recently argued in a column in The New York Times that Bush should go slow in his demand on Musharraf to democratise. Bingo for Musharraf the autocrat.

But Musharraf's ploy that Qadeer& company alone were responsible for leaking nuclear technology to 'rogues' like Libya, Iran and North Korea, is full of holes which are as many as in a Swiss cheese. Nobody seriously following the saga of Pakistan's nuclear travails and idiosyncrasies is prepared to lump the thoroughly disingenuous line that the Pakistani generals had no inkling of the deadly exploits of Qadeer and associates.

If, for the sake of argument, one buys the line of the generals' innocence, then it should be a cause of grave concern to Pakistan and George W. Bush. How could anyone trust Pakistan's leadership-and its role in the global war against terror-with its generals sleeping on their watch?

For the sake of argument,too, if one subscribes to Qadeer's 'confession' that he sold nuclear secrets to Libya and Iran ( both have denied it ) in 'good faith' ( which in the Pakistani context should read: out of Pan-Islamic zeal ) then where does North Korea fit into this pattern?

Anyone familiar with the arcane nature of Pakistan's nuclear programme would know that neither Qadeer nor anyone else under his feathers, could have carried out such a daring series of piracies without the army's tacit endorsement and active chaperoning. The North Korean initiative, for one, was an entirely military ( Pakistani ) to military (North Korea) deal because of its obvious advantage. Pakistan needed a delivery system for its nuclear weapons; North Korea had the missiles to fill the need. Hence the barter: missiles for nuclear technology.

General Musharraf may have scored a tactical victory over Qadeer and signed the idealistic scientist's death warrant. But in the process he has handed the detractors of Pakistan's nuclear programme-who have been dogging it since its birth-a loaded revolver which could, and certainly would, be used against Pakistan at a time of their choosing. 

Bush may be in bed with Musharraf in Afghanistan and because of it may give him all the benefit of doubt. But this handicap is not going to be there forever. And what if Bush loses his re-election bid in November, of which the chances are good? What would then be Musharraf's fate and that of Pakistan's cloistered nuclear programme and arsenal of weapons? Would it not, then, invite a swift backlash from those who now have been given Qadeer's confession as damning evidence of Pakistan being an irresponsible nuclear power? Musharraf's victory over Qadeer would, then, prove to be pyrrhic beyond anyone's imagination.

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