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A.Q. Khan’s Acquittal

A. Vinod Kumar was Associate Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • February 20, 2009

    Though anticipated, the timing of the Islamabad High Court’s verdict to release disgraced nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan from house arrest has surprised many, since it came days before the first ever visit by Richard Holbrooke, President Obama’s special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Zardari government has tried to play safe by citing this as a decision taken by an ‘independent’ judiciary. Such arguments are, however, unlikely to find many takers. To mollify international opinion, which surprisingly has not been as forceful as expected, Islamabad has indicated the option of appealing against the verdict. However, a government which has dilly-dallied on fixing responsibility over the Mumbai attack despite evidence of involvement of Pakistan-based groups, is unlikely to seriously attempt to block Khan's release.

    However, Khan’s release itself could have been masterminded by the Zardari government. There are many reasons to support this postulation. First, it could be a direct message to Holbrooke, and to Obama, that Pakistan would be assertive in its policies despite US pressure. Besides sustaining the defiance by General Musharraf on Washington’s demand to hand over Khan for interrogation, President Zardari could have wanted to project his authority and political independence through Khan’s release.

    The presumptive spin-offs are many. It could be a message to the Pakistan Army on the gradual assertion of civilian (read PPP) power. Khan, a revered man in Pakistan, had been critical of General Musharraf and the Army for incarcerating him after a forced confession. Though Musharraf had pardoned Khan for his deeds, the disgraced scientist had responded to the court verdict by saying that “god had already punished Musharraf as he can’t now freely come out”. By blaming Musharraf and the Army authorities for his forced confession, Khan had struck a chord with major political parties, which had demanded his release in the run up to the general elections. The day might not be far when Khan makes a foray into politics, aspiring to assume a political or constitutional position. As for the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) government, Khan’s acquittal meant correcting a wrong done by Musharraf, and thus implicitly the Army. Once US pressure eases, the PPP could try to gain political mileage for ‘freeing’ Khan from prolonged incarceration. It would also be an opportunity for the Party to remove the slur of September 2007, when the late Benazir Bhutto declared in Washington that she would hand over Khan to the IAEA if returned to power.

    Such domestic dimensions notwithstanding, the actual motive behind Khan’s acquittal could be political posturing towards Washington. Islamabad has consistently invoked red herrings when pressure is mounted by the US on taking action against extremist elements within Pakistan. As a special envoy on Pakistan-Afghanistan, Holbrooke had the specific task of extracting Pakistan’s commitment in dealing with the Taliban both inside Afghanistan as well as against those groups that are controlling major parts of the Federally Administered Tribal Regions (FATA).

    Far from supporting US operations in the porous Afghanistan-Pakistan borderlands, Islamabad has resisted efforts by American forces to launch frontal attacks against militant groups in FATA, which has become a launch pad for the Taliban-led insurgency in Afghanistan. With Obama’s assertion that Pakistan has to be accountable for its actions against such groups, Holbrooke had the clear task of pushing Islamabad to the wall. By releasing Khan a few days before his visit with little heed for international retribution, Islamabad has signalled to Washington its determination to take decisions according to its choice. Islamabad might have felt that such assertiveness could impart it with greater leverage during negotiations with the special envoy. That Washington was floored by the Khan coup was manifested in the anti-climactic conclusion to the much-hyped first visit by Holbrooke. But for a visit to the tribal areas and reported assurances by the Pakistan government on monitoring Khan’s movements, there was little that Holbrooke could achieve in his first outing. Rather, within hours of his return to Washington, Islamabad had agreed on a truce with pro-Taliban elements in the Swat Valley. This is not just a setback to the Obama administration, but actually an affront to Holbrooke.

    Earlier, on the sidelines of the Munich Conference, US Deputy Secretary James Steinberg was given a verbal assurance by Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi that Khan’s release would not pose a proliferation risk. Incidentally, President Obama has also maintained a discreet silence while allowing his junior officials to communicate with Pakistan on the implications of Khan’s release. Even in his phone conversation with President Zardari on February 12, Obama was not reported to have referred to Khan’s acquittal. While not wanting to let the Khan episode dilute the pressure on Pakistan’s commitment to the war on terror and anti-Taliban campaigns, an obvious reason for de-emphasising Khan’s release would be the strongly held belief that Khan no longer has the wherewithal to run a proliferation network. Further, heightened monitoring of his activities after his release could restrict him from reviving his old proliferation links.

    However, not many are ready to buy such assurances as it is felt in some quarters that Khan’s network functioned with the full backing of the Pakistan Army, which can continue to use Khan through other avenues. Also, the fact that Khan’s accomplices had earlier established contact with al Qaeda is a cause for worry. Further, Khan’s potential metamorphosis into a political leader would have ominous consequences, especially if he favours an extreme right orientation. Another puzzling factor to be discerned is whether the Army had any role at all in Khan’s acquittal, despite his pronouncements against the Army.

    Nevertheless, Khan’s release could come with high costs. With the infamy of being a dangerous state which hosts both terror groups as well as nuclear proliferators, Pakistan could come under immense international pressure and monitoring as more countries begin to express apprehensions on Khan’s release. Obama could be forced by the powerful US non-proliferation lobby to tighten the tab on Pakistan’s nuclear assets. For that matter, concerns over the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear assets have dominated the non-proliferation discourse in the US, especially in the Congress, where it is strongly felt that the Zardari government is a lame duck when it comes to handling nuclear weapons. Consequently, Khan in a political garb would be a bigger nightmare for Western capitals than his modest life as an extraordinary ex-scientist in pursuit of ‘altruist’ evangelism.