Today's date:
Spring 2004

Musharraf Knew About A.Q. Khan’s ‘Private’ Proliferation

Benazir Bhutto was prime minister of Pakistan twice and leads the main opposition party—the Pakistan People’s Party—though she lives in exile in London and Dubai. She spoke with NPQ editor Nathan Gardels on Feb. 16 in California where she was visiting friends and family.

NPQ | Last month President Pervez Musharraf told me that since he came to power in 1999 Pakistan’s nuclear assets were “more secure than those of the ex-Soviet Union” and that under the system implemented under his command, “every bore” of every rifle at every base is accounted for.

Relatives of scientists who worked for Dr. Khan also say that the nuclear labs had absolute security. Yet, United States intelligence photographed a Pakistani military plane in North Korea picking up missile parts in North Korea in July 2001.

Is Musharraf’s claim that Dr. A.Q. Khan (a prominent Pakistani scientist and centrifuge expert) was acting on his own without the knowledge of the president and the military or security services credible?

BENAZIR BHUTTO | It is not credible. I believe A.Q. Khan was following orders. He didn’t do it on his own. There could not have been any widespread export of nuclear technology without the generals, and probably Pervez Musharraf himself, being involved.

I don’t understand how Musharraf can say that Khan acted against Pakistan’s interest by marketing nuclear weapons technology while taking many millions in the process—yet still call the man a hero?

In Pakistan today there is a widely held perception that Khan was held incommunicado since December against his will. During that time he was pressured to “act in the national interest” and take the blame on his own shoulders as part of a vast cover-up. There is widespread resentment, even anger, that he has been made a scapegoat.

There is anger because to most people this seems like just another episode in which the generals are not held accountable while civilians are made scapegoats for the military’s mistakes—whether it is the fighting in Kargil (Kashmir border) which almost led to a nuclear war with India or the disastrous “strategic depth” alliance with the Taliban in Afghanistan.

NPQ | Although Pakistan had not yet detonated a bomb when you were prime minister, since 1989 it had all the unassembled components for a weapon. How did you protect those assets?

BHUTTO | I don’t buy the argument Musharraf has made that he was the one who put in the safeguards around Pakistan’s nuclear assets, that somehow they were “loose” under democracy and only a strong man could make sure they were safe.

When I was prime minister the first time from December 1988 to August 1990 I banned nuclear scientists from traveling abroad without a security detail. I didn’t want our scientists disappearing and being forced to help other countries build their nuclear program. In my second term, in consultation with the army chiefs, I put a major general in charge of the control and command system, and the scientists were watched inside the laboratory system. So, there was an outer ring and an inner ring of security, and no scientists were allowed to travel abroad unattended.

To the extent this system was still in place, no less made stronger, how could any export of nuclear technology take place? It could take place only if the governments after me changed the nuclear security policy and permitted proliferation; if the army chief decided that he was going to defy the government and follow his own policy; or if the intelligence service decided it was going to defy both the government and the army chief and carry out its own clandestine operation. It is inconceivable that an individual scientist, monitored from day to night, could export Pakistan’s nuclear technology.

NPQ | What did you know about Pakistan’s nuclear relationship with Iran, Libya and North Korea?

BHUTTO | Discussions about exporting nuclear technology to Iran started in 1987 under Gen. Mohammed Zia ul-Haq. They stopped in 1988 when I was prime minister because we had a policy of “no export” of nuclear technology, then resumed again in 1990 after my dismissal and stopped again in 1993 when I came back until I left office again in 1996.

There was no program with Libya at all until Musharraf took over. When I traveled to Libya during my first term as prime minister, (Moammar) Khadafi never raised with me the issue of nuclear collaboration.

My family had been very close to Khadafi. My father (also a former prime minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto) had family ties with him. My brothers had been living in Libya in exile. If he could have raised the issue with any Pakistani leader, it would have been me. He didn’t. Nawaz Sharif, who succeeded me after my second term, never traveled to Libya because of the international sanctions over terrorism. Yet, Musharraf did go there in 2000. If he didn’t go to sell a bomb dossier, as has been reported, then why did he go? What made Libya so suddenly interested in the bomb?

My surmise is that Musharraf was trying to make himself strategically important after being virtually ignored by President Clinton—who met with him for only four hours on his visit to South Asia. Musharraf wanted to send a message: pay attention to me or you might see the consequences.

Concerning North Korea, the army and scientists came to me in 1993 and asked me to go to North Korea, which I did, to negotiate the exchange of nuclear delivery technology for cold cash. After we got the technology, they came to me again and said, “Now we want to develop this updated missile technology.” I refused to give them the money to go forward because I was very clear at the time that I didn’t want a missile race with India.

Despite what Musharraf says, the accounting was tight under the democratic regime, and this did not happen.

If some kind of swap program took place with North Korea, it took place much later. If the policy changed, who changed it? Or did the army or intelligence do it on its own? Or was our intelligence infiltrated by operatives with ulterior motives? Musharraf has lots of questions to answer on this.

NPQ | What would be the motives of President Musharraf, the army or the intelligence and the scientists exporting nuclear weapons technology?

BHUTTO | Experience has led me to believe that Musharraf and the generals who work with him are part of a network, a cabal, that is ideologically driven.

It is the same cabal that destabilized democracy in Pakistan, that supported the Taliban in Afghanistan and has been sympathetic with Osama bin Laden.

They think that the clash of civilizations, in which they believe, would be enhanced if the enemy—the West and most particularly the US—could be ringed by hostile countries with nuclear capability. They defeated one superpower, the Soviet Union, and now they want to defeat another. If they made some money on the side, fine.

I say “cabal” because it is not just certain members of the ISI (inter-security services) or the military, but a large network of people in the banking and other civilian sectors as well that were involved in the Afghan jihad and were associated with Gen. Zia, the dictator who tried to bring Taliban values to Pakistan and enforce the oppressive Wahhabi-Saudi interpretation of Islam.

Musharraf is the perfect face for this network. He tells the West he will crack down on the militants one day, and does, then releases them the next.

He is protecting the jihadist network right under the nose of the West. The reality is that he is at war with democracy in Pakistan because it is the biggest threat to the religious parties—his main allies—and their vision.

If Musharraf was really the moderate he contends he is, then he would be happy just crushing me and not my party. My only conclusion can be that he is against the policies we espouse: against religious extremism that opens up Pakistan to the taint of terrorist associations. This is not just bad for Pakistan, but for the West as well. Under Musharraf, the madrasas (religious schools) are flourishing while the political parties are dying. That must not be allowed to happen.

NPQ | Dr. Khan has been quoted as saying “it is not a crime to share nuclear weapons technology with other Islamic nations” and is reported to have been a member of the Islamist Lakshar-e-Toiba. Gen. (Mirza Aslam) Beg, who worked under you as army chief of staff, promoted an Islamic alliance of Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan armed with the bomb. Bashiruddin Mehmood, a nuclear scientist who helped build Pakistan’s plutonium plant at Khushab and headed the Atomic Energy Commission, is said by French writer Bernard-Henri Levy to be a member of the Islamist Harkat-ul-Moujahedeen, which had a key role in kidnapping Daniel Pearl.

Is the link between Islamist groups and Pakistan’s nuclear establishment as extensive as this suggests?

BHUTTO | Yes and no. North Korea, of course, is not an Islamic country. The aim of the broad network of which I have spoken is to spread nuclear technology to all countries, Islamic or not, that could be against America. It is quite possible that North Korea and Iran and Libya didn’t come to this network in Pakistan—but the network went to them!

As far as I know, Dr. Khan was not a member of Lakshar-e-Toiba, at least initially; nor was Bashiruddin Mehmood a member of Harkat-ul-Moujahedeen, to my knowledge. I am shocked if that is true. But to succeed in Pakistan—even during my time as prime minister—you had to accommodate the cabal or it would seek to crush you and destroy your life. Perhaps, if it is true, Bashiruddin and others joined up as a way to stay on. They might have gone to him and said, “Help your Islamic brothers.” As for Gen. Beg, he did talk about a strategic military alliance with Iran.

But he never discussed a nuclear alliance. He agreed with me that there should be no export of nuclear technology, that Pakistan’s weapon was for deterrence against India and a matter of national and Muslim pride. If we used it for anything else or shared our technology, we risked being seen as proliferators by the West and that would put Pakistan’s security at risk. We would make ourselves a target like Iraq was when its Osirik reactor was taken out by the Israelis. Gen. Beg agreed to all of this. If he was doing something covert otherwise, he will have to answer for that.

NPQ | Does this nexus of the cabal and Pakistan’s nuclear assets worry you?

BHUTTO | It worries me that Washington and the rest of the West back the military dictatorship and are unable to support the democratic forces in Pakistan. It is this lack of support for democracy that has led to the internal collapse of Pakistan—including, according to UNDP (United Nations Development Program), a skyrocketing poverty rate that encompasses 42 percent of the people.

The backing of Musharraf by the West has led the cabal to be drunk with power. They feel they can get away with anything while fooling even Washington. Even though the recent elections were rigged Washington has said nothing.

As long as power is concentrated in the hands of an unelected, unrepresentative, unaccountable clique of people, that power will be abused.

When power is so concentrated in a country with nuclear assets, the consequences for the world at large can be devastating.

If Musharraf succeeds in crushing the democratic parties, the only alternative to Musharraf himself will be the religious leaders. If that happens, what will the West do? The US made this mistake in tolerating Saddam Hussein when he fought Iran. Now, if it lets Pakistan’s leaders get away after being caught with their fingers in the proliferation pie, the consequences will be even more dire.

NPQ | Is Musharraf protecting Osama bin Laden?

BHUTTO | The big joke in Pakistan is that Osama bin Laden “lives in the president’s house.” That means Osama bin Laden is Musharraf’s life insurance. The day he and his cabal hand over Osama bin Laden to the US is their last day because then the US will no longer need them and will stop turning a blind eye as they crush democracy. That is why they need Osama.

Musharraf will never deliver Osama bin Laden. We are likely to see instead that he will hand over Mullah Omar on the eve of the US election in November.