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Pakistan's nuclear loopholes

DESPITE MULTIPLYING evidence that Iran, North Korea, and Libya have obtained their key nuclear technology from Pakistan, the United States continues to coddle General Pervez Musharraf, accepting his assurances that nuclear transfers occurred long before he took power and were perpetrated only by "corrupt individuals" in the nuclear program -- not by generals or political leaders. In a carefully stage-managed scenario, the father of the Pakistani nuclear program, Dr. A.Q. Khan, publicly confessed to amassing millions through illicit foreign nuclear sales and appealed for clemency. Musharraf promptly pardoned him to avoid a trial that might implicate leading military figures, including Musharraf himself. But even the sternest punishment of Khan and his cronies would only be the first step in a meaningful Pakistani effort to reassure the world that future nuclear transfers will not occur.


Islamabad has enough enriched uranium stockpiled for 52 more nuclear weapons in addition to the 48 it already deploys. To find out whether nuclear transfers have really stopped under Musharraf and whether adequate safeguards are in place to prevent the leakage of nuclear materials to terrorist groups, the United States should insist on three steps by Pakistan as a precondition for the $3 billion in new military and economic aid promised by President Bush last June.

The most urgent would be the installation of new protective measures in Pakistani nuclear laboratories, supervised by US scientists. Second, Pakistan would have to permit regular inspection access by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Finally, radically strengthened Pakistani export controls would be essential to restore Islamabad's nonproliferation bonafides.

A recent study by the University of Georgia shows that Pakistani export control machinery is riddled with loopholes that would make it easy for Al Qaeda sympathizers to smuggle out nuclear components and know-how.

The study emphasizes the need to reverse export control regulations, promulgated after Musharraf took over, that exempt the armed forces and Defense Ministry agencies from its scope. Since "nuclear weapons and missiles are directly controlled by the armed forces," the study declares, "unless these exemptions are clarified or withdrawn, unlicensed exports by defense agencies would legally not be violations of domestic export control laws." This glaring loophole would have enabled the A.Q. Khan Research Laboratories to continue providing nuclear technology to Iran and Libya during Musharraf's tenure in addition to the earlier transfers documented in October by the IAEA. It could also explain how Khan managed to make his latest suspected nuclear transfer to North Korea less than two years ago in payment for missiles.

According to the CIA, Pakistan used US-supplied C-130 transport planes to ship Nodong missiles from Pyongyang in July, 2002. This provoked the imposition of US trade sanctions against the Khan Laboratories and a North Korean company in March, 2003. But the State Department stressed that the sanctions related solely to missiles and did not reflect a formal US finding that North Korea had exported nuclear technology to Pyongyang.

The administration fears that a showdown with Musharraf over Pakistan's relations with North Korea might jeopardize his help in combating Al Qaeda. But there is little doubt that North Korea did get its uranium enrichment technology from Pakistan. When the administration accused Pyongyang of violating its 1994 nuclear freeze pledge by conducting the uranium program, it leaked two internal reports documenting the Islamabad-Pyongyang connection.

A transfer of North Korean missiles to Pakistan as late as 2002 raises the question of how Pakistan is paying for them. If Islamabad did not pay with nuclear technology, did it divert some of the aid money given by the United States since 9/11 to buy missiles from the North Koreans?

In the internal administration debate over how to handle Musharraf, the argument against a get-tough posture on the nuclear issue is not only that it would jeopardize his cooperation against Al Qaeda, but also that it could lead to his ouster by a more nationalistic general sympathetic to Al Qaeda. But these arguments ignore the fact that the unpopular military regime needs US economic and military aid for its survival. Moreover, Musharraf's principal potential challenger, General Mohammed Aziz, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is a hardline nationalist from Kashmir, not an Islamic fanatic. Aziz might take a tougher line with India than Musharraf, but would be ready, like Musharraf, to cooperate on nuclear controls if this is the price for US aid.

In return for nuclear inspections, the United States should be prepared to offer Pakistan compelling new incentives, including access to the US textile market, which the White House promised when Musharraf signed on as a US ally after 9/11.

Stepped-up textile exports to the huge US market would be an economic bonanza for Pakistan. President Bush has been reluctant to confront US protectionist interests opposed to letting in Pakistani imports, but he should be willing to spend some of his political capital on this issue. Stopping the proliferation of nuclear technology and the leakage of nuclear materials is a paramount US interest, no less important than combating Al Qaeda.

Selig S. Harrison is director of the Asia Program at the Center for International Policy in Washington.

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