As the 2004 presidential election moves into its final weeks, neither candidate has mentioned a vital threat to American national security: the vulnerabilities of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal. Unlike Iraq's supposed nuclear program, which thankfully proved to be non-existent, Pakistan's nuclear weapons and technology are very real. If the United States is serious about keeping the world's most dangerous weapons out of the hands of the world's most dangerous terrorists, the U.S. government must demand a full accounting of Pakistan's nuclear proliferation activities.
Soon after September 11, amid reports that Pakistani nuclear scientists had links to Osama bin Laden, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf declared that he had complete control over the country's arsenal. However, it is now known that Pakistan's nuclear technology was being exported to North Korea as late as spring 2002, and to Libya in the fall of 2003. Thus, either President Musharraf was not in control of Pakistan's nuclear program or he was using it in ways that contradict U.S. policy toward at least two dangerous countries.
Musharraf blamed Pakistan's leading nuclear scientist, Abdul Qadeer Khan, for the technology exports, claiming that Khan was leading a rogue operation for personal gain. That explanation strains credulity, given Musharraf's tight control over the Pakistani military.
That fact, coupled with the recognition that al-Qaida has sympathizers in Pakistan's military, intelligence, nuclear and political establishments, should have prompted the Bush administration to demand that Pakistan unravel the full details of its proliferation network. If nothing else, a better understanding of the network could provide important clues about the nuclear programs of North Korea and Iran.
Instead, the Bush administration supported Musharraf's assertion last February that the proliferation network was Pakistan's "internal matter." Absent U.S. pressure, Musharraf has refused to cooperate with International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) investigations into the network. The two presidential candidates have been strangely silent on this matter.
The White House may be giving Musharraf a pass, since his regime has recently taken significant steps in eliminating some of the al-Qaida cells in Pakistan. However, al-Qaida-affiliated groups such as Jaish-e-Mohammed continue to operate in Pakistan. So does the much larger Lashkar-e-Taiba, which has some terrorist ties, and which may still have relations with al-Qaida. According to al-Qaida expert Peter Bergen, such groups may be responsible for hiding al-Qaida fugitives, including bin Laden himself. There have also been persistent reports that elements of Pakistan's military and intelligence services are facilitating the Taliban's quest to regain some of its power in Afghanistan. Significantly, former Pakistani intelligence chiefs such as Hamid Gul and Lt. Gen. Mahmud Ahmed have worked against U.S. interests and have helped shape the Pakistani regime's policy directions.
Some have advised against pressuring Musharraf too much, out of concern that he might be overthrown by a new government far more hostile to U.S. interests. That is a legitimate concern. But Musharraf, under pressure from the Bush administration, has cooperated in the war on terrorism by aiding in the overthrow of the Taliban and by attacking al-Qaida cells inside of Pakistan. If he can survive those steps, which are unpopular with the Pakistani people, there is little reason to believe that an international effort to understand the details of Khan's nuclear network would lead to Musharraf's downfall.
While we should be mindful of potential future scenarios for Pakistan including what might happen if Musharraf were to lose his grip on power, the threat of the proliferation of Pakistani nuclear technology has already materialized. We cannot know the extent of that threat without a full accounting of the Khan network's operations. It is irresponsible to defer to Musharraf and a Pakistani establishment that has, at best, suspect loyalties on a matter of the utmost importance to American national security.
A more responsible U.S. policy would honestly acknowledge the Pakistan problem and lead a multinational drive to pressure Pakistan to provide a complete, verifiable accounting of its nuclear proliferation activities. Though western powers have had differences of opinion regarding the threats posed by various actors, no one should proceed under the illusion that al-Qaida affiliates in possession of nuclear weapons do not pose a clear and present danger.
U.S. acquiescence in Musharraf's cover-up was crucial to forestalling such an international effort. Both President Bush and Sen. Kerry should be asked about Pakistan during the upcoming debates. It is vital that the American people appreciate the gravity of the situation and possess a clear understanding of the candidates' plans to tackle the problem.