WASHINGTON, Aug. 31 (UPI) -- Pressuring a weakened strategic ally by reopening old wounds carries a certain amount of risk. But in the case of Pakistan, President Pervez Musharraf's current domestic political troubles provide the United States with an opportunity to put something back on the table that should never have been taken off.
The United States must pressure Pakistan to deal appropriately with A.Q. Khan, the Pakistani nuclear scientist and weapons smuggler former CIA Director George Tenet labeled at least as dangerous as Osama Bin Laden. Khan operated a black-market network responsible for illegally transferring nuclear weapons technology to Iran, North Korea and Libya for more than two decades. After confessing to his crimes in 2004, Khan was pardoned and placed under house arrest in Pakistan. His current legal status, however, is mired in uncertainty.
In July a Pakistani nuclear official said Khan’s house arrest had been substantially relaxed and he is now "virtually a free citizen." A Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokeswoman denied the allegation, claiming there was no change in Khan's status and "he continues to lead a quiet life with his family. He meets his friends. He talks to people."
The United States has been reluctant to rock the boat over Khan these past few years, refraining from criticizing Musharraf for fear of alienating a key ally against terrorism. But now, alarmed by the clustering of terrorist camps in Pakistan's tribal areas and frustrated by ongoing nuclear disputes with Khan customers like Iran and North Korea, some American officials are starting to voice their displeasure over Khan's legal limbo.
The Sept. 11 reform bill passed by Congress on July 27 stated, without mentioning Khan by name, that it was U.S. policy “to work with the Government of Pakistan to dismantle existing proliferation networks and prevent the proliferation of nuclear technology.” Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns remarked the same day, albeit not so passive-aggressively, that Islamabad would not be offered a deal similar to the U.S.-India nuclear cooperation arrangement because "Pakistan has a past in terms of nuclear proliferation which, with the A.Q. Khan network, was very troubling."
American officials' dissatisfaction is well-founded. Unraveling and preventing nuclear smuggling operations allows the international community to halt the process through which hostile nations and terrorists might acquire the bomb. The ineffective punishment handed down to Khan continues to be a burr in the saddle of the international nuclear non-proliferation regime for several key reasons.
First, Pakistan's unwillingness to provide other countries access to Khan limits the vital intelligence that can be extracted from him. Unless Pakistan vigorously interrogates Khan or allows other countries to question him, much of his nuclear network will remain unidentified and undocumented.
Second, Khan's punishment -- or lack thereof -- signals that future nuclear perpetrators will get off scot-free. Earlier this year a maintenance worker at a nuclear cleanup site in Tennessee was arrested for attempting to sell centrifuge components to an undercover agent posing as a French official. Wherever there is nuclear technology, there is the risk that someone will attempt to proliferate for profit, but the Khan saga has done little to deter would-be smugglers.
Third, nuclear proliferators like Khan could enable terrorists like bin Laden to carry out their ultimate ambition: detonating a nuclear device in an American city, a tactic the National Intelligence Council recently declared a resurgent al-Qaida "would not hesitate to use." The less capable the United States appears at apprehending nuclear proliferators, the more terrorist groups will see nuclear weapons as acquirable and worth pursing.
Musharraf may be on the ropes domestically, but he has come back swinging to reassure the United States that he is still a reliable ally against terrorism. On Aug. 7 Pakistani troops backed by helicopter gunships and artillery successfully attacked a militant base in Pakistan's northwestern Waziristan region. This likely represents a not-so-veiled overture by Musharraf for increased American support, especially as his political rivals Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif return from exile abroad and gain momentum as viable challengers in Pakistan’s upcoming elections.
With Musharraf vulnerable and looking for support, now is the time for U.S. officials to ask for access to Khan and a clarification and strengthening of his murky legal status. Agreement on dealing with Khan would be a good first step toward negotiating the thornier issue of eliminating terrorist encampments in Pakistan's tribal areas, an issue that will figure prominently in U.S.-Pakistani relations regardless of whether Musharraf, Bhutto, Sharif or some combination of the three is leading Pakistan.
(Travis Sharp is the military policy analyst at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in Washington, where Max Postman is a researcher.)
(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)