Pakistan’s newspapers are filled with a raging debate concerning the admission by government scientist Dr A.Q. Khan that he transferred nuclear secrets to Libya, North Korea and Iran. This follows a series of "debriefings" by the country’s security services under the direction of General Musharraf’s military regime.
Dr Khan was long regarded as a hero figure by the Pakistani elite and particularly the military. He earned the nickname "Father of the nuclear industry". The main nuclear research laboratories are named after him and he was regarded as being responsible for developing Pakistan’s nuclear capability. Khan was also seen as a heroic figure by Islamic Fundamentalist groups who referred to his role in making the first “Islamic nuclear bomb”. Khan was also a prominent proponent of the ideas of reactionary right-wing Islamic ideas.
The new claims that Khan gave secrets to other states, however, is a major source of embarrassment for the Pakistan military, and particularly that faction that supports Musharraf. Once Iran revealed to the International Atomic Energy Agency that Pakistan had provided it with nuclear technology in the 1980s and 1990s, the Tehran regime had to explaining how this happened. It is clear that Musharraf decided to sacrifice some of Pakistan’s top nuclear scientists in order to avoid sanctions being reapplied to Pakistan by US imperialism and by European states.
However, the contradictory explanations given by the Pakistan press and government on how this happened, brings wry smiles to most Pakistanis who follow the news. Some newspapers claim that Khan has secret foreign bank accounts with millions of dollars, made up of payments from countries who bought these secrets. However, other commentators claim that Khan gave the secrets away "to make other Islamic countries nuclear powers, as well, so that intense Western pressure on Pakistan’s nuclear power could be eased".
Government spokesmen claim that Khan had complete autonomy in running the country’s nuclear weapons industry. They say - without blinking - that no-one in previous civilian governments or the military had any idea about Khan’s role in selling or giving these secrets away. Despite initial reports that Khan sold nuclear technology to raise funds for Pakistan’s nuclear research, government officials now claim he did it in secret for his own benefit. This is laughable. No-one believes that the military, who regard nuclear capability as primary in their arsenal of weapons, could possibly have been in the dark concerning this development.
According to an “unnamed friend” of Khan, the nuclear scientist told government investigators: “What ever I did, it was in the knowledge of the bosses.” (London Guardian, 4/02/04).
Khan claimed that two former military chiefs – General Mirza Aslam Beg and General Jehangir Karamat – and General Musharraf were “aware of everything” he was doing.
Musharraf strikes at Islamic forces
Musharraf has used this issue to strike a blow at the Islamic Fundamentalist groups, both inside and outside the army, who are closely associated with Khan. This probably signifies Musharraf’s counter-attack against Islamic forces. In recent months, there were two assassination attempts on his life, which Musharraf claimed, in an interview given to CNN at the Davos World Economic Forum conference, two weeks ago, were the work of Al Qaeda.
The alliance of Islamic Fundamentalist groups in the Pakistan parliament, the MMA, has called for a strike on the 5-6 February to protest against the treatment of Khan. It is not clear what response this will receive. Most Pakistanis regard the action taken against Khan as a hypocritical bid by the military, which wants to continue ingratiating itself to US imperialism (which is hated throughout the country). However, there is no great love for the MMA in society either. In the Provinces, where the MMA form regional governments, economic conditions have worsened and corruption is endemic. At a national level, Musharraf did a deal with the MMA, which involved him receiving a vote of confidence in the Parliament as President of the country in return for agreeing to resign in 2007. So the position of the MMA is viewed as hypocritical.
Meanwhile, Musharraf continues to take security measures to stop further assassination attempts on him. The entire headquarters of the military command is being moved from Rawalpindi to nearby Islamabad, which is regarded as being safer for the President. These are not the actions of a leader who is confident of remaining in power.
As the Khan episode shows, the working class and poor of Pakistan can have no faith in any section of the ruling elite. Neither can the Islamic groups show a way out. Working people need their own political voice – a socialist party that challenges corruption, poverty and capitalism.