Those in New Delhi who are gloating over the “nemesis” of Abdul Qadeer Khan may find that their joy over the dark clouds surrounding Pakistan’s nuclear programme may be premature. General Pervez Musharraf, who has lived dangerously ever since he became Pakistan’s army chief in late 1998, has the cunning, the daring and the bargaining chips to turn the ongoing crisis over his country’s proliferation record into yet another opportunity to increase his relevance to the West and enhance Washington’s stakes in his political longevity.
Indeed, Musharraf has taken the biggest risk of his politico-military career by putting Khan’s back to the wall: for close to three decades, Khan has been a holy cow for Pakistanis, be it politicians, the army or the public. To suggest that Musharraf will not succeed in protecting Pakistan’s nuclear assets by sacrificing the “father” of that country’s nuclear programme is to underestimate the wily general.
Speeches are beginning to be made in New Delhi and articles are beginning to be written by pundits in the Indian media comparing India’s squeaky-clean record in the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction to that of China and Pakistan, which can only be described as murky at best, dangerously irresponsible at worst. There are no doubts about India’s record. But those who praise that record as an end in itself may find that Musharraf may well have the last laugh.
A quarter century ago, General Zia-ul-Haq walked away from Washington’s inducements and blandishments to become a frontline state against Soviet-occupied Afghanistan, dismissing the offer of then president, Jimmy Carter, of $ 400 million in assistance as mere “peanuts”. Zia then blackmailed Ronald Reagan into converting the Georgian peanut-farmer-turned-president’s offer of “peanuts” into a tidy aid package of $ 3.2 billion.
Learning from that lesson of history, Musharraf may end up turning Pakistan’s sleazy record of proliferation to his advantage, securing for himself and his regime much more than anything India’s strategic pundits ever bargained for. Musharraf’s non-proliferation problems with the United States of America and the rest of the world began at a time when Pakistan’s relations with Western countries was at its nadir. In most Western capitals, it was no longer possible for Pakistani diplomats to sustain Islamabad’s duplicitous policy of hunting down Islamic terrorists and supporting them at the same time.
For the first time since the Soviets were forced to withdraw from Afghanistan, Pakistan faced a real threat of losing its influence and leverage within that neighbouring country which has been historically viewed by civilian and military regimes in Islamabad as crucial for its strategic depth in south and central Asia. Ironically, such a dead end for Pakistani policy in Afghanistan has coincided with an understated crisis for the Western presence in Afghanistan. Because the world’s attention is focused on Iraq, the spectacular Anglo-American intelligence failures there and the consequent political problems in London and Washington, Afghanistan’s slow slide into conflict has gone largely unnoticed.
Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, once a protégé of Islamabad and a recently designated terrorist in Washington, is now running the primary resistance operation against Western presence in Afghanistan, independent of any support from Pakistan. He has been joined by splinter groups, many of which once looked across the border and to the Inter-Services Intelligence Agency for money, training and arms to continue their operations.
Such a development, by itself, is not something that would make anyone lose any sleep in Washington. Not so, though, when it translates into the prospect of increased attacks against Western forces in Afghanistan or rising casualty figures among US and North Atlantic Treaty Organization personnel in the months prior to an American presidential election.
More than at any time since the taliban was thrown out of power by the Americans with help from Musharraf, Washington now needs the support of Islamabad to pursue its objectives in Afghanistan. With new equations in the tribal melting pot that Afghanistan has been for centuries, there is a frightening prospect that given the rising level of violence there, a return to full-scale war cannot be avoided once the winter months are over.
Contrary to expectations in some quarters in New Delhi that the US no longer needs Pakistan, Washington may actually appeal to Musharraf, instead, for greater support in ending the taliban menace in Afghanistan. Even if the hypothetical, albeit real, possibility that the capture or death of Osama bin Laden is crucial to ensuring another term for George W. Bush in the White House is dismissed, the Americans still need Pakistan’s support to ensure that Afghanistan does not once again become a staging ground for terrorist operations worldwide.
This is a scenario that is tailor-made for Musharraf, just as it may have appeared to many people in New Delhi that the wily General has run out of options. It is certain that Musharraf will not be found wanting in pledging his support to the US administration on this score. But his support will come with a price tag — just as Zia’s support to Reagan in the fight against the Soviets in Kabul came with a high price tag — the price of which is actually being paid by virtually the whole world today in terms of Isla- mic extremism and religion-based terrorism.
This is where Khan’s fate really comes in. Musharraf, it is more or less certain, will offer Khan and other Pakistani nuclear scientists, hitherto lionized as national heroes, as sacrificial lambs so that Islamabad can continue to hold on to its nuclear assets. If the post-September-11 experiences are any guide, Musharraf will not to have much difficulty in convincing Washington that successive Pakistani rulers from Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto to Nawaz Sharif have been playing with fire in the management of their country’s nuclear programme.
He will argue, however, that with him in charge, the world need not have any more worries about the safety and security of Pakistan’s nuclear assets. Even if many people in Washington may not take Musharraf at his word, there will be enough support at the Pentagon and the state department for the General’s line because it is expedient for them to do so. In any case, do they have much of a choice'
If this happens, Musharraf would have prevented Pakistan’s nuclear programme from going the same way as similar programmes in South Africa, Brazil, Iran and Libya. Washington will yet again look the other way as Pakistan reconstitutes its weapons programme, post-Khan, exactly the same way the Americans did in the Eighties, as the price for Zia’s support in fighting the Soviets in Kabul.
Already, there are stories circulating within Washington’s diplomatic community that Pakistan will insist on a future role for the rump elements of the taliban in Afghanistan’s post-election government on the twin grounds that such forgiveness for Mullah Omar’s men is good for national reconciliation, and that these elements who are joining the mainstream are capable of being reformed. Any such move will amount to a continued role for Islamabad in Afghan affairs at a time when it appeared that Pakistani influence in Kabul had touched its nadir since the heady days when the ISI was calling the shots under taliban rule. This will ensure that India’s efforts to cosy up to any permanent, post-taliban set-up for governing Afghan- istan will have built-in checks, which will also take care of Islamabad’s interests in Kabul.
There is a worrying perception in many influential quarters in India that Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s embrace of Zafarullah Khan Jamali, his counterpart on the other side of the border, has opened a new chapter in relations between the two neighbours. Musharraf’s scheme to undo Khan for what is obviously a much bigger prize ought to make Indians realize that their stakes in Pakistan are no different now merely because Vajpayee and Musharraf are talking again.