Op-ed: Unhappy the land that needs heroes... —Hans B Bremer
So is Dr A Q Khan a hero, a fall guy or a villain? The answer depends, of course, on how you feel about this affair. In any case, I consider it a rhetorical question because I don’t much care for easy, headline-grabbing labels
The plot thickens. Sunday’s Washington Post carried a report that made it sound as if Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan had been running something like a nuclear mail-order business. Quoting unnamed Pakistani officials, the report says that on October 6 last year, President Musharraf and other political and military leaders were presented evidence by a US delegation, led by Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and the head of the US Central Command, General John Abizaid, that Dr Khan had been passing on nuclear technology and expertise to Iran, Libya and North Korea.
As if that were not enough, the Post quotes one Pakistani official as saying that the US officials had also presented evidence of Dr Khan’s alleged attempts to sell nuclear secrets to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, and they reported that he had travelled to Beirut for a clandestine meeting with a top Syrian official in the mid-1990s. The US officials are said to have warned Pakistan that failure to act on the information could lead to sanctions by the United States and the United Nations. The report does point out that apart from Pakistan, companies and individuals from Malaysia, South Africa, Japan, the United Arab Emirates, Germany and one other European country were also involved. But still, there are repeated references to a “smuggling ring” or a “nuclear trading network” run by Dr Khan and aided by various suppliers and middlemen.
Whatever understanding the US is showing in public for the moment, this whole affair must count as an extremely dangerous one whose eventual outcome could tilt in any conceivable direction. We are now told that US Secretary of State Colin Powell is expected in Islamabad in the near future, probably later this month. This follows his telephone conversation with President Musharraf late on Saturday. The two generals may have a good professional and even personal understanding, but we all remember Powell’s phone call to Musharraf after the New York and Washington terror attacks of September 11, 2001.
The danger posed by the revelations about the activities of Dr Khan is evident not least from the barrage of critical articles in opinion-forming US papers such as the Washington Post and the New York Times. And it is not just the American press that is sending out warning signals. Here is what Germany’s Welt am Sonntag had to say in an editorial on Sunday: “Iran and Libya disclose everything — they fear Israel and the US. The evidence is on the table and Dr Khan confesses: he and only he was involved. That’s not true, of course, but President Musharraf pardons him so that he keeps quiet...This nuclear thriller reminds one of the 007 movie character of Dr No. But Dr Khan is a dangerous reality.” You would be right to describe this kind of warped thinking as slanderous and possibly libellous. But let us not underestimate the power of preaching to the converted. Once such a thing is out in print, the damage is done.
I have no way of telling whether last Wednesday’s confession on PTV was scripted by Dr Khan himself or by someone else. Let me quote the one passage that worries me most: “I also wish to clarify that there was never ever any kind of authorisation for these activities by a government official.” That is not exactly the same as saying that no government official ever knew about the activities. And Dr Khan did not add “or military official” to the end of the sentence. I have no reason to disbelieve General Musharraf when he absolves Generals Aslam Beg and Jehangir Karamat of any wrongdoing in connection with nuclear proliferation. But there are levels below that of the COAS.
So is Dr A Q Khan a hero, a fall guy or a villain? The answer depends, of course, on how you feel about this affair. In any case, I consider it a rhetorical question because I don’t much care for easy, headline-grabbing labels. But I cannot help thinking of some lines from German dramatist Bertolt Brecht’s play “The Life of Galileo.” In scene 13, the ancient Italian astronomer and physicist’s assistant Andrea says, “Unhappy the land that has no heroes!” To which Galileo replies, “No. Unhappy the land that needs heroes.” An equally depressing quote on the subject can be found in the works of 19th century English philosopher Herbert Spencer: “Hero-worship is strongest where there is least regard for human freedom.”
We may be reduced to hoping and praying that President Musharraf will succeed in steering us through and out of this crisis in such a way that Pakistan can emerge as unscathed as possible. If that requires letting out more painful facts, so be it. The country’s long-term honour, dignity and sovereignty must come first.
Hans Bremer is a German journalist based in Islamabad