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Testing Our 'Ally,' Pakistan

September 16, 2004

Amysterious explosion in North Korea last week again raised worries about the secretive nation's nuclear weapons program. The International Atomic Energy Agency is trying to figure out what's going on in that country, where its inspectors are barred, and in Iran, where the sleuths are allowed only grudgingly. Why not seek answers from that great friend of the United States, Pakistan? After all, Pakistan is known to have sold nuclear weapons technology to other nations, helping them develop the kind of weapons of mass destruction that the Bush administration erroneously said would be found in Iraq.

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's government persists in blaming a "rogue scientist," Abdul Qadeer Khan, for supplying nuclear technology to North Korea and Iran. Khan also helped Libya, which blew the whistle on his assistance with its announcement that it was giving up its attempt to go nuclear.

Claims by Musharraf, who seized power in a 1999 coup and is also Pakistan's top general, that the military and government knew nothing about Khan's activities beggar belief. Yet Musharraf, whose spokesman announced Wednesday the general was reneging on his promise to step down as head of the army, apparently did convince Washington. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell visited Islamabad in March and announced that the U.S. was designating Pakistan "a major non-NATO ally." Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said there was no reason to believe Musharraf was involved in Khan's network.

U.S. officials estimate Libya alone paid Khan's organization at least $100 million. Somehow that money deluge escaped the notice of Pakistani officials, the Islamabad government says. After Khan admitted supplying technology to enrich uranium to other countries from 1989 to at least 2000, Musharraf said anyone involved in spreading Pakistan's nuclear secrets would be treated with "an iron hand." A month later, in February, Musharraf pardoned Khan.

The pardon might have been a reflection of Khan's status as national hero for being the father of Pakistan's nuclear bomb, giving the country parity with longtime foe and next-door neighbor India. Musharraf's pardon came soon after he survived the second of two assassination attempts. His foes are not leaders of major political parties -- he banned them from running for office -- but Islamic radicals from the likes of Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Pakistan said it would share information it obtained from Khan with other nations, but sources in Washington said they had received nothing so far. So much for help from a supposed major ally.

North Korea claimed this week that its explosions were not nuclear weapons tests but demolition of a mountain for a hydroelectric project. Khan could help the U.S. and the IAEA understand how much of Pyongyang's explanations to believe. Musharraf should make him available for face-to-face interviews with nuclear inspectors, not dangle the ever-fainter promise of some day offering secondhand tales of what Khan knows about the state of nuclear proliferation.

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