Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Travis Sharp and Max Postman: Pressure Pakistan over Khan

The Center’s Travis Sharp and Max Postman wrote an excellent commentary for United Press International last week, arguing that “The United States must pressure Pakistan to deal appropriately with A.Q. Khan, the Pakistani nuclear scientist and weapons smuggler former CIA Director George Tenet labeled at least as dangerous as Osama Bin Laden.”

Sharp and Postman explain:

The United States has been reluctant to rock the boat over Khan these past few years, refraining from criticizing Musharraf for fear of alienating a key ally against terrorism. But now, alarmed by the clustering of terrorist camps in Pakistan's tribal areas and frustrated by ongoing nuclear disputes with Khan customers like Iran and North Korea, some American officials are starting to voice their displeasure over Khan's legal limbo.


American officials' dissatisfaction is well-founded. Unraveling and preventing nuclear smuggling operations allows the international community to halt the process through which hostile nations and terrorists might acquire the bomb. The ineffective punishment handed down to Khan continues to be a burr in the saddle of the international nuclear non-proliferation regime for several key reasons.

First, Pakistan's unwillingness to provide other countries access to Khan limits the vital intelligence that can be extracted from him. Unless Pakistan vigorously interrogates Khan or allows other countries to question him, much of his nuclear network will remain unidentified and undocumented.

Second, Khan's punishment -- or lack thereof -- signals that future nuclear perpetrators will get off scot-free. Earlier this year a maintenance worker at a nuclear cleanup site in Tennessee was arrested for attempting to sell centrifuge components to an undercover agent posing as a French official. Wherever there is nuclear technology, there is the risk that someone will attempt to proliferate for profit, but the Khan saga has done little to deter would-be smugglers.

Third, nuclear proliferators like Khan could enable terrorists like bin Laden to carry out their ultimate ambition: detonating a nuclear device in an American city, a tactic the National Intelligence Council recently declared a resurgent al-Qaida "would not hesitate to use." The less capable the United States appears at apprehending nuclear proliferators, the more terrorist groups will see nuclear weapons as acquirable and worth pursing.

Sharp and Postman conclude:

With Musharraf vulnerable and looking for support, now is the time for U.S. officials to ask for access to Khan and a clarification and strengthening of his murky legal status. Agreement on dealing with Khan would be a good first step toward negotiating the thornier issue of eliminating terrorist encampments in Pakistan's tribal areas, an issue that will figure prominently in U.S.-Pakistani relations regardless of whether Musharraf, Bhutto, Sharif or some combination of the three is leading Pakistan.

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