Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - Pakistan's government has denied reports that substantial U.S. pressure forced it to act against the recently exposed black market in nuclear weapons technology, or that American diplomats confronted Gen. Pervez Musharraf with intelligence evidence of the leakage.
Islamabad also insisted that the proliferation had not benefited terrorist groups, and that Pakistan's nuclear assets were in safe hands.
A military spokesman told reporters that investigations had found no evidence that nuclear know-how -- leaked to rogue states by Pakistan's top scientists -- had reached terrorist organizations like al Qaeda.
Musharraf last week officially pardoned the founder of his country's nuclear weapons program, Abdul Qadeer Khan, after the scientist confessed in a televised address to selling nuclear secrets to foreign governments.
Khan absolved the government and military of any involvement in the scandal, although the assertion that he could have acted alone has been widely ridiculed by experts in South Asia and beyond.
Khan is accused of helping Iran, Libya and North Korea obtain nuclear weapons technology in the late 1980s and early 1990s, via a proliferation network involving middlemen in several countries.
While concerned about nuclear know-how reaching regimes like Tehran and Pyongyang, the U.S. and other Western governments also worry about "secondary proliferation" - from Iran and North Korea to other countries or non-state groups.
In a report citing unnamed government officials, Pakistan's The Nation newspaper said top U.S. officials last October presented Musharraf with detailed evidence about the proliferation trade and threatened sanctions and isolation if he did not act.
It said Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and Assistant Secretary Christina Rocca warned the general that failure to act would jeopardize relations with the U.S.
The evidence reportedly included proof that Khan had tried to sell nuclear technology to former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in 1992, The News said.
Intelligence agencies had tracked Khan's foreign travels in recent years, including visits to Iran, North Korea, Libya, Malaysia and the United Arab Emirates, and had obtained evidence of meetings and payments.
Musharraf launched an investigation and placed Khan under house arrest in November.
Pakistan's Foreign Office spokesman, Masood Khan, on Monday denied that Armitage and Rocca had presented Pakistani officials with any evidence of proliferation activities during their visits.
He said the government had conducted the probe voluntarily, to stop the trade and demonstrate to the world that Pakistan is a responsible country.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher confirmed Monday that proliferation had come up during Armitage's October meeting with Musharraf, but said he could not elaborate on the "contents" of the discussion.
Boucher reiterated the Administration's view that Pakistan is cooperating and has made "progress" in its investigation into the proliferation.
The U.S. government has not criticized Musharraf for pardoning Khan, characterizing it as an internal matter for Pakistan. Islamabad said Monday the pardon was conditional on the disgraced scientist's cooperation in the investigation.
Many reports have noted that the illegal activities continued during Musharraf's tenure - the army chief seized power in a coup in 1999 - with centrifuge trade with Libya continuing as late as last fall.
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the U.S., Musharraf has become a key ally in the U.S.-led war against terrorism, and in turn has won strong political support from Washington.
Washington's muted public reaction to the revelations has drawn flak internationally, particularly in South Asia.
India-based security experts, who have been researching and writing on Pakistani proliferation for years, described the affair as "extraordinary" and "a cover-up" to protect the military and government.
Many analysts have pointed to the differences between the U.S. response to the largest weapons of mass destruction network ever uncovered, and to WMD proliferation in other contexts, including Iraq, North Korea and Iran.
The deputy director of the Institute of Defense Studies and Analyses in India, C. Uday Bhaskar, said the U.S. was using "kid-glove treatment" in Musharraf's case and accused Washington of inconsistency.
K.P.S. Gill, president of the Institute for Conflict Management in New Delhi and publisher of the South Asia Intelligence Review, said the recent events in Pakistan constituted "one of the most consummate political charades in recent history."
Gill argued that it was the U.S. which faced the gravest threat from Pakistan's leakage of nuclear technology to the rogue states.
Yet while other players have been targeted by U.S. and international sanctions, "the primary proliferator and central protagonist in the sponsorship of international Islamist terrorism escapes unscathed, again and again, irrespective of the enormity of its transgressions," he charged.
Brahma Chellaney, strategic studies professor at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, accused the U.S. of "double standards" and said Musharraf had "exploited international concerns about the situation in Pakistan to strengthen his hold on power."
Heritage Foundation senior fellow Peter Brookes said Tuesday that Pakistan was a "troubling strategic partner" but added that "Islamabad remains critical in fighting terrorism and proliferation."
He said the U.S. should use the revelations emerging from Khan's debriefing to find out exactly what secrets had been leaked been done, and to break up the covert proliferation network.
Although the "nuclear genie is out of the bottle," the U.S. still had a chance, with Pakistan's "belated" help, to prevent Iran and North Korea from spreading the technology further afield, Brookes said.
See related story:
Alarm Raised over Possible Nuclear Links Between Burma, North Korea (Feb. 10, 2004)
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