Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan in January 2010. Photo: AFP Behrouz Mehri

A pair of Pakistani lawmakers have demanded a “thorough probe” into the proliferation of “several tons” of nuclear materials to Iran, Libya and North Korea under the country’s former military ruler, Pervez Musharraf, who was in power from 1999 until 2008.

Pakistan People’s Party Senator Farhatullah Babar and Jamiat-e-Ulama-e-Islam’s Hafiz Hamdullah said last week in the country’s upper house that the father of its nuclear program, Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan, was not a lone actor in the “global spread of nuclear technology” from Pakistan, despite making a confession to that effect in 2004. Several others “characters” played a major role in facilitating the materials’ proliferation, they claim, but were spared by the president. Babr and Hamdullah are calling for the “entire network” of proliferators to be exposed irrespective of their status and standing.

Babar stressed that it was inconceivable to think that a single individual could have smuggled out huge centrifuge machines and other nuclear material without collusion from “other players.” He did not divulge the identities of those he believed were involved in the transfer of nuclear technology – but it is well understood he was alluding to Pakistan’s army.

Mohamed El Baradei, the Egyptian former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, raised the same point in February 2004 when he told reporters the Khan case “raised more questions than it answered, as Khan represents only the tip of an iceberg: we need to know who supplied what, when, to whom, as Dr Khan was not working alone.”

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Khan’s lab in Karachi provided foreign states with the designs for Pakistan’s older centrifuges, as well as more advanced and efficient models. Khan and his associates used a factory in Malaysia to manufacture key parts for their centrifuges. The other necessary parts were purchased through network operatives in Europe, Middle East, and Africa.

His main beneficiaries were the North Koreans, who were using plutonium as early as the 1980s before Khan started sending them equipment for uranium enrichment, as well as designs and lists of materials for centrifuges. After September 11, 2001, the world’s focus was on Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq, but but nuclear proliferation was going on in Pakistan, where Khan stood at the heart of an intricate worldwide network.

Babar did not divulge the identities of those he believed were involved in the transfer of nuclear technology – but it is well understood he was alluding to Pakistan’s army

Khan ran Pakistan’s nuclear program from 1975 to 2001, when his network was exposed and he had to relinquish his position. That exposure jolted the world and the Pakistani establishment sprang into action to take minimize reputational hazard. With Pakistan an important ally in the US-led war in Afghanistan against the Taliban and al-Qaeda, the White House avoided criticizing Musharraf or the Pakistani government – pointedly ignoring the extent of government or military involvement in the illicit network. President George W. Bush commented: “The government of Pakistan is interrogating the network’s members, and President Musharraf has promised to share all the information he learns about the Khan network and has assured us that his country will never again be a source of proliferation.”

Pakistan’s military establishment offered Dr Khan a pardon in return for taking full responsibility. The Washington Post, quoting a friend of Dr Khan’s, reported in February 2004 that Pakistan had good reason to try to bury the issue. The scientist had “helped North Korea design and equip facilities for making weapons-grade uranium”, the newspaper claimed, “with the full knowledge of senior military commanders, including Gen Musharraf, who is also army chief of staff.”

The day before he was pardoned, on February 4, Dr Khan appeared on state television to declare, in a chocked voice, that he had acted alone without any authorization from the army or government and express “my deepest regrets and unqualified apologies to a traumatized nation.” Improbable as it seems, then as now, he was asking people to believe he alone had sold atomic secrets to Iran, Libya, and North Korea.

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