It was a development no one in Pakistan would have thought possible. Ten days ago A.Q. Khan, the "father of the Islamic bomb" and a towering figure to millions, confessed to exchanging nuclear secrets with other countries - later named as Libya, North Korea and Iran.
For General Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's military ruler, to whom Mr Khan was a "personal hero", it was a particularly unwelcome moment. But with much the same speed that Pakistan's leader showed in responding to previous emergencies - notably Washington's demand that Pakistan turn against its Taliban protege in Afghanistan following the attacks of September 11 2001 - Gen Musharraf arguably defused the immediate crisis.
Gen Musharraf persuaded Mr Khan to broadcast an apology to Pakistanis - although tellingly it was delivered in English - and then pardoned the disgraced scientist on the grounds that he was a national hero. Ignoring suspicions about whether the real motive of the pardon was to avoid an awkward trial that might have cast the net of responsibility much wider, George W. Bush, the US president, last week backed Gen Musharraf by upholding Islamabad's view that Mr Khan had acted without authorisation and out of personal greed.
The US had its own reasons for accepting Gen Musharraf's version of events. Washington wants Islamabad's continued co-operation in the war on al-Qaeda and the remnants of the Taliban in Pakistan's border areas with Afghanistan. The US also wants to ensure that Pakistan never again becomes a centre for nuclear proliferation. On both counts Washington accepts Gen Musharraf's actions in good faith. Yet the decisiveness with which Gen Musharraf acted also meant that the world paid less attention to other signals the president sent out - signals that raise questions as to whether Pakistan has turned over a new leaf in curbing the threat of proliferation.
One of these was a stark warning that Gen Musharraf gave to Pakistani newspaper editors: "You should play a more responsible role in this matter - and even if for the sake of argument it is accepted that the government and the army were involved in the (proliferation) affair, do you think it would serve our national interest to shout about it? . . . Stop writing this!"
The Pakistani army's right to determine what is in the national interest seems unlikely to diminish, even after Gen Musharraf removes his uniform at the end of this year and becomes a civilian president. But many believe that the problems involving Mr Khan emerged precisely because the Pakistani military sees itself as the arbiter of the national interest.
"Most Pakistanis don't really care if A.Q. Khan siphoned off money for his own personal use - they see so much corruption anyway," says Talat Masoud, a retired general who was in charge of Pakistan's defence procurement. "Their main gripe is that the military is trying to cover up its responsibility for the scandal by pardoning A.Q. Khan (and so avoiding a public trial). I am sorry to say they are to a large extent right." So should the world now accept that Pakistan has become a responsible and co-operative nuclear power?
In their defence, senior Pakistani figures concede that they were remiss in failing to detect Mr Khan's nuclear salesmanship over an estimated 15-year period starting in the late 1980s. But they point out that since 1998, when Pakistan followed India in holding tests and declaring itself a nuclear power, the logic of the country's nuclear strategy has been reversed.
"Pakistan has gone from being a covert nuclear state to an overt nuclear state and that changes everything," says Farooq Leghari, who was president of Pakistan in the mid-1990s. "Dr Khan needed to operate with great secrecy and autonomy to accomplish what he did. But now that Pakistan is a declared weapons state there is no need for this."
Furthermore, Pakistan's chain of command was overhauled and centralised in 2000, when Gen Musharraf established the Nuclear Command Authority to oversee development and deployment of nuclear weapons. Both the Khan Research Laboratories, which purloined the technology to enrich uranium, and the Pakistan Atomic Energy Authority, which oversaw most of the remaining 26 steps to create a nuclear weapon, are now answerable to the same clear line of authority.
This is important because the two bodies have a history of rivalry and antagonism that many believe helped foster the climate of subterfuge and permissiveness in which Dr Khan so dangerously manoeuvred.
"It would simply be impossible for a Dr Khan to emerge from the structure we now have in place," says Faisal Saleh Hayat, Pakistan's interior minister. Against this, however, there are a number of nagging doubts over whether Pakistan can be depended upon to end proliferation. [color=red]The most important is that Pakistan will almost certainly have to continue importing technology, material and components if it wants to maintain and develop its existing nuclear arsenal, estimated at 45 to 50 warheads.
<u>"Most Pakistanis and foreigners believe that Pakistan's nuclear deterrent is now wholly indigenous," says Shahid-ur-Rehman, author of a book on Pakistan's nuclear programme and a close acquaintance of Dr Khan. "They are completely mistaken."</u></font>
This might not matter if - as Islamabad maintains - Pakistan already had a credible nuclear arsenal in place to serve as a "minimum deterrent" to neighbouring India, at whom the programme is directed. But there are serious doubts whether Pakistan's military-dominated Nuclear Command Authority would sit idly by while India continued to upgrade its nuclear arsenal - estimated at 50 to 100 warheads. "Being a nuclear weapons state is a dynamic process," says Ayesha Siddiqa, a Pakistani defence analyst. "You don't just say: 'Now I have nuclear weapons and I have no intention of upgrading them.'"
India's civilian-dominated nuclear system, which maintains an opaque division of responsibilities, makes no secret of its intention continually to modernise its nuclear arsenal. India aims to develop a "triad" capability in which it can launch nuclear missiles from land, air and sea. Since New Delhi's nuclear programme is as much directed at China as at Pakistan, India is also constantly striving to extend the range of its ballistic missiles so that it can reach China's east coast.
On the face of it India's modernisation plans should not affect the calculations of the strategic planners in Islamabad, since Pakistan has no need to match China. But the depth of rivalry between India and Pakistan would make such assumptions precarious. "You can never assume Pakistan will behave wholly rationally vis-a`-vis India, <u>or vice versa,"</u> says an UTTERLY IDIOT western ambassador in Islamabad. [color=red]Pakistan would be unable to replicate even its existing technology if various imported components were to fail. Crudely speaking, experts estimate that Pakistan's uranium-enrichment programme - which has supplied the weapons-grade material for most of its warheads - is less than 50 per cent indigenous.
The country is more self-sufficient in plutonium, which is created by reprocessing spent fuel rods from nuclear reactors. The Pakistani army operates a 40-megawatt nuclear reactor near the city of Jhelum, which, unlike the country's two civilian nuclear power plants, is not subject to external safeguards.
Just five of Pakistan's 50 or so nuclear warheads are plutonium-based. "Although it is a more expensive process than enriching uranium, it is a fair bet that Pakistan will place more emphasis on the plutonium option over the coming years," says Mr Rehman. But even then Pakistan would run into difficulties, since it would need to import roughly a fifth of the components required to expand its plutonium capacity.
Conversely India - which like Pakistan refuses to sign the international nuclear non-proliferation treaty - is now thought to have an almost wholly indigenous nuclear weapons manufacturing capability.</font>
International observers are thus deeply sceptical of Gen Musharraf's assurances that Pakistan will completely shut down its proliferation activities, because such a move would hamstring Pakistan's own programme. "When Gen Musharraf pledges to end proliferation he almost certainly means to other countries excluding Pakistan," says Michael Krepon, head of the Washington-based Henry L. Stimson Institute, which focuses on weapons of mass destruction. "It is hard to believe this will not store up more problems for the future."
he other primary cause for concern is the likelihood that Pakistan's army will continue to interfere in the country's politics. Under a deal that Gen Musharraf struck with the six-strong group of Islamist parties in December, the president will shed his uniform in December and serve the remaining three years of his term as a civilian. In exchange, however, the opposition Islamist parties in effect agreed to waive their veto over establishing a National Security Council by conceding that the law would require only a simple majority in the national assembly.
This means the pro-Musharraf parties, which are in a majority, will comfortably push through a law later this year to establish an NSC on which the army will be generously represented. The new body is likely to take precedence over democratic governments on undefined questions of "national interest" - presumably including Pakistan's nuclear programme.
At the very least, such a move would create doubts about Gen Musharraf's professed aim of restoring genuine democracy to Pakistan. But it could also sow the seeds for further scandals of the variety cooked up by Dr Khan. "It would be nice to say that the Pakistani army has learned its lessons from the A.Q. Khan debacle," says a western diplomat. "But it appears to be drawing precisely the wrong conclusions - that more secrecy, rather than more transparency, is the answer."
Evidence of this abounds. Islamabad's investigations into the "rogue scientists" allegedly behind the proliferation ring have short-circuited normal legal procedures. Relatives of the six detained scientists say they are being held at secret locations without access to lawyers. Government officials including Gen Musharraf have publicly declared them guilty; few believe there will be a trial.
Pakistani officials point out that other countries including the US and Britain have laws permitting incarceration for long periods on grounds of national security. "The west has no right to get on its high horse," says one official.
But even on broader issues Pakistan's army shows no signs of making itself accountable to elected politicians. The country's defence budget - which officially amounts to almost 4 per cent of gross domestic product - <u>is traditionally just one sentence long, providing no breakdown.</u>
"Off-budget" military spending is rampant and the army's involvement in Pakistan's mainstream economy remains as extensive as ever. Retired or serving military officers hold influential positions at many of the country's largest state corporations. The army runs corporate subsidiaries and investment funds that own large chunks of the private sector, including much of urban Pakistan's prime residential land. Many concede that Gen Musharraf, who remains a target of Islamist terrorist groups that in December twice came close to assassinating him, is a moderate and progressive figure. Like his admirers in Washington and elsewhere, they support Gen Musharraf's plans to reform Pakistan's backward education system and rein in the country's array of Islamist militant groups.
But they are frustrated by the slow pace of change and conclude that the role of the army is the real obstacle - in the nuclear programme as in much else.
"There are a lot of people who feel let down by Gen Musharraf," says Ms Siddiqa. "He has made all the right noises about women's rights and curbing the Islamist militants. But while the army remains unaccountable the whole system will remain unaccountable. It is hard to fix all our other ailments while this remains the case."
It is not often that Pakistan can turn to neighbouring India for comfort. But this week's peace talks between the two countries - the first in almost three years - which start in earnest today, mark an unusual diversion from Islamabad's woes over nuclear proliferation.
Senior Indian figures have avoided exploiting Pakistan's embarrassment over its alleged central role in the international "nuclear black market". Last week Yashwant Sinha, India's foreign minister, said Pakistan was unlikely to have been alone in exchanging nuclear secrets over the past 15 years.
The two countries share great disdain for multilateral nuclear treaties. Both refuse to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty as long as the five permanent members of the United Nations Security council decline to acknowledge newcomers to the club. And both have also shunned the comprehensive test ban treaty.
"Nuclear diplomacy is one of those few areas where India and Pakistan are of one mind," says an official in Islamabad.
Yet such affinity is dangerously absent when it comes to nuclear stances towards each other. Unlike the Soviet Union and the US during the cold war, India and Pakistan have not exchanged information about their respective nuclear facilities.
Military analysts say this raises the possibility of a nuclear conflict between the two countries.
But this week's talks provide an opportunity to establish a safer environment by agreeing to discuss nuclear risk-reduction measures, say diplomats. "This is the perfect opportunity for Pakistan to demonstrate it is a responsible nuclear power," says a western ambassador in Islamabad. "It would also be a very good way of drawing a line under the A.Q. Khan scandal."
Pakistan's formal position is to avoid discussing the nuclear question until there is progress in talks over the disputed state of Kashmir, which Islamabad sees as the core problem. India has typically been willing to discuss anything but Kashmir, its only Muslim-majority state.
Islamabad is thought to be under intense pressure from the US to separate progress on nuclear risk-reduction from the resolution of the Kashmir dispute, especially following the recent proliferation crisis. "It is becoming increasingly difficult for Pakistan to hold nuclear safety hostage to other issues," says Pervez Hoodbhoy, a professor at Islamabad's Quaid-e-Azam' university.
Many believe, however, that it would be hard for the two nations to take serious steps - exchanging details about the positioning of their respective nuclear arsenals, for example - since this would require a degree of trust between New Delhi and Islamabad that is lacking.
There are certain measures, such as more frequent use of the nuclear "hotline" - a dedicated phone line between the leaders of the two countries - that would reassure the international community, say analysts. Substantive steps, such as agreeing to cap the production of fissile material, or forgoing development of anti-ballistic missiles, are considered unrealistic. Moreover, India's hopes of purchasing the Arrow anti-ballistic missile system from the US would almost certainly accelerate the arms race between the two, says Mr Hoodbhoy.
"This would be a deeply irresponsible act," he says. :whine: "It would push Pakistan to develop new types of delivery system, such as the cruise missile.
If that was approved, risk-reduction measures would become futile."