Mar 8, 2014
Andrew Cockburn on the Islamic Bomb
Posted on Dec 6, 2007
Thus, any passing concern about what the Pakistanis liked to call “the Islamic Bomb” was swept aside in the fervor of the anti-communist jihad. Asked in January 1980 for his views on Pakistan’s nuclear ambitions, presidential candidate Ronald Reagan summed up the official attitude: “I just don’t think it’s any of our business,” he replied. Torrents of U.S. aid were already pouring into Pakistan, where the regime was devoting energy and funds to the construction of thousands of “madrasas”—Islamic religious schools—with the enthusiastic encouragement of the American paymasters. Thus the United States simultaneously acted as an enabler for the construction of the “Islamic Bomb” and the molding of the Islamists who might one day control it.
For the sake of appearances, Washington had to retain the posture of an ardent anti-proliferator. So portions of the bureaucracy labored on as if U.S. policy really was to prevent Pakistani acquisition of nuclear weapons. Hence the sad but by no means unique story of Richard Barlow, the CIA analyst who told a congressional committee about Pakistan’s extensive nuclear component smuggling network. Telling the truth while his superiors were blithely lying ruined his career at the Agency. After transferring to the Pentagon, he pursued the same course and soon suffered the same punishment. Dick Cheney, defense secretary in the elder Bush’s administration, argued forcefully for a benign attitude toward Pakistan on the issue—after all, there was a lucrative sale of F-16 jet fighters at stake. When customs agents plotted a sting to catch a key member of the Pakistani network, their quarry escaped thanks to a timely tip-off from a high-level State Department official.
The indulgent fostering of Pakistan’s nuclear ambitions is, however, just part of the story of these books. A.Q. Khan was elevated to mega-villain status in the Western press only when it emerged that components and expertise from the Pakistani bomb program had been finding their way to countries that were apparently not on the U.S.-approved list: Libya, North Korea and Iran. In reality, despite suggestions by Frantz and Collins that Khan was acting without the knowledge or approval of his government, it is beyond the bounds of probability that Khan could have shipped sensitive material out of the country on military aircraft without authorization. Be that as it may, the story of Pakistan’s nuclear export drive is instructive on two levels. First, as the various authors make clear, there were no great impediments placed in the way of the technology transfers either from Pakistan itself or its various overseas suppliers, certainly not from the CIA, which had recruited Urs Tinner, an important executive in Khan’s smuggling network, to keep Washington informed.
Second, the “secret trade in nuclear weapons,” a phrase that Levy and Scott-Clark breathlessly use in the subtitle of their book, doesn’t seem to have helped anyone actually build a nuke. This is not a point that gets much attention in an anti-proliferation industry vegetating in assorted think tanks and bureaucracies, international and domestic. Moammar Kadafi, for example, who was simultaneously paying billions to Cheney’s Halliburton to build the “great man-made river” irrigation project, seems to have barely unpacked the various pieces of machinery by the time he traded them away to the Americans for Washington’s blessing and newfound friendship. The North Koreans, despite having handed over useful missile technology to Islamabad, never got anywhere with their Pakistani-supplied uranium enrichment facilities. The bombs they did build came via their indigenously developed plutonium production program.
That left Iran. Despite the inanities spelled out by Therese Delpech in “Iran and the Bomb: The Abdication of International Responsibility,” the most notable feature of the ayatollahs’ bomb program is that it was so unsuccessful, which may be why they abandoned it in 2003. (Delpech confirms the old axiom that there is no more unappealing spectacle than that of a French intellectual aping American political fashions; in this case a crude neoconnery complete with the usual casual misrepresentations of Iranian statements and policy.) After all, it took Iran’s nuclear scientists 21 years of research and seven years of sporadic experiments to get a mere 164 centrifuges spinning away to produce a nugatory quantity of enriched uranium. That was a year ago, and Mohamed ElBaradei of the International Atomic Energy Agency doesn’t seem to think they have put on much of a spurt since then. It would be nice to think that the authors of the recently unveiled National Intelligence Estimate rebutting claims of an ongoing Iranian bomb program were inspired by ElBaradei’s observation that “everybody [should] have gotten the lesson after the Iraq situation, where 700,000 innocent civilians have lost their lives on the suspicion that a country has nuclear weapons,” but bureaucratic self-interest seems a more likely stimulus.
Does nuclear proliferation matter that much anyhow? The assorted pundits and bureaucrats, not to mention hard-working journalists such as the authors of these books, would be aghast even to hear the question asked, but it must be admitted that India and Pakistan have stopped fighting full-scale wars since they both got bombs. If, however, the answer is yes, perhaps an imaginative counter-proliferation strategy would be to sponsor A.Q. Khan to export his technology, on the grounds that it never quite appears to work. Come to think of it, that seems to be what we did.
Andrew Cockburn is the author of several books, including, most recently, “Rumsfeld: His Rise, Fall, and Catastrophic Legacy.”
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