WASHINGTON — The United States will neither sanction Pakistan for pardoning the top scientist who passed nuclear bomb technology to Iran, Libya and North Korea, nor demand an independent investigation of the Pakistani military's suspected role in aiding the transfers, U.S. officials said.
That's because the Bush administration wants Pakistan's cooperation in pursuing at least two larger strategic interests: tracking down and halting the shadowy international procurement ring that has been peddling nuclear bomb technology, and rooting out Al Qaeda and Taliban networks in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
"Our goal is not to denounce people, our goal is not to jail people, our goal is to get results... ," said a senior administration official. "If we can help that happen by leaving it to [Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf] and not trying to dictate from Washington what he has to do, then that's what we're going to do.
"It's just another case where you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar," the official added. "And there's a lot of flies to be caught in Pakistan."
But some analysts say the administration's decision to handle Musharraf with kid gloves may have unintended and possibly dangerous consequences.
Several said the implicit U.S. stance was that the U.S.-declared war on terrorism trumped the goal of nonproliferation and that such a position would send the wrong message to other nuclear aspirants. Some also argued that acquiescing to Musharraf's decision to pardon the scientist, Abdul Qadeer Khan, poses a moral hazard for an administration that toppled Iraqi President Saddam Hussein because of alleged offenses involving weapons of mass destruction that were arguably less severe than Khan's.
But Pakistan experts agreed Washington feared that pushing Musharraf too hard in public to crack down on Khan, the revered creator of the "Islamic bomb," could weaken the Pakistani general's fragile hold on power. The Bush administration's nightmare is that Musharraf will fall and a nuclear-armed extremist Islamic government will follow.
"There's a strong belief here in Washington that Musharraf is the only thing that stands between us and chaos," said Stephen Cohen, a Pakistan specialist at the Brookings Institution. Nevertheless, Cohen said, "Pakistan could be our biggest foreign policy problem, because it's an Iraq with nuclear weapons. The government may not be as brutal, but it is as dangerous."
Musharraf announced Thursday that he would pardon Khan, and he insisted that the scientist and associates in Pakistan's nuclear laboratories had acted alone. "The reality is that the government is not involved and that the military is not involved," Musharraf said.
White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said Musharraf had given assurances that his government was not involved in any kind of proliferation. "We value those assurances and his actions since he made [them] demonstrate his commitment," McClellan said Thursday.
But the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, took a contrary view, saying that Khan was not working alone and calling him "the tip of an iceberg."
The administration is right to put cracking the global proliferation network ahead of punishing Pakistan, said Henry Sokolski, head of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center. But claims that the Pakistani government was not involved in the nuclear transfers were "absurd" and the Bush administration should say so, Sokolski said.
"We found [nuclear] weapons designs in Libya .... Khan didn't have access to those," but Pakistan's military did, Sokolski said.
Moreover, Pakistani military planes reportedly ferried centrifuges used to enrich uranium to North Korea. Bush administration critics say such evidence calls into question the reliability of the Pakistani military as a vaunted U.S. ally.
Khan's escape from punishment sat poorly with those who support the administration's emphasis on cracking down on proliferators.
"I can't think of any[one] who deserves less to be pardoned than A.Q. Khan ... , " said David Kay, the former chief U.S. weapons hunter in Iraq.
"These guys aren't even suffering the penalties you would get from smuggling marijuana," said Joseph Cirincione, a nonproliferation specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He said the administration was using a double standard for friend Pakistan and foes Iraq and North Korea. "It's terrible that North Korea would export Scud [missile] technology, but it's a forgivable offense if Pakistan exports nuclear bomb technology to half the developing world."
Musharraf also incensed international critics Thursday by chastising Libya and Iran for cooperating with the IAEA, thus exposing Pakistan as their crucial nuclear supplier.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said Friday that Khan and his network no longer posed a proliferation threat and that alone was a "big success for the international community."