Musharraf's high wire act

Published December 6, 2004 8:19PM (EST)

Apparently the ongoing international effort to dismantle the global black market for nuclear weapons, rooted at least until recently in Pakistan, is not going so well. The LA Times reports:

"The global investigation into Abdul Qadeer Khan's black market trade in nuclear technology has stalled in a clash of national interests that threatens a full accounting of his secret partners and clients, according to interviews with diplomats and officials from several countries. International authorities fear the full scope of the Pakistani scientist's ring may never be known. Senior investigators said they were especially worried that dangerous elements of the illicit network of manufacturers and suppliers would remain undetected and capable of resuming operations once international pressures eased."

So how is Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf helping?

"Amid speculation that Khan may have operated with the knowledge or assistance of other high-ranking military officials in Pakistan, President Musharraf pardoned Khan early this year and has refused to permit investigators from the IAEA or the United States to interview the scientist.

"'Investigators are very keen to get direct access to [Khan], but I don't think it will ever happen,' a Western diplomat said."

It's no secret that Musharraf's government maintains only a fragile hold on power; widespread sympathy for militant Islamists among Pakistanis and inside the government and military themselves keeps the Pakistani leader continually walking a tightrope as a "close ally" to the Bush White House in the war against terrorism. (Musharraf barely escaped two assassination attempts late last year.)

Perhaps such pressure led some Pakistani officials by proxy to announce recently that they were essentially calling off the hunt for Osama bin Laden in the relatively lawless territories bordering Afghanistan, where many intelligence officials believe bin Laden continues to hide out and operate.

But the world isn't just watching Musharraf walk the high wire without a net. In light of Iran, North Korea, and, God forbid, the possibility of nuclear weapons in the hands of independent terrorists, we're all edging out on the wire alongside him, with the abyss lurking below -- especially if Khan still holds any blueprints for the illegal nuke trade, and if Pakistan at all remains a nexus for such activity. As the Times piece further details, black market operations have recently stretched as far and wide as Italy, Spain, Switzerland and the United Arab Emirates.

So while there is the utmost delicate balance to be struck in terms of pressuring Musharraf, it's worth remembering that for decades Washington stood by while the Saudi regime turned a blind eye to militant Islamists at home. They, and the foreigners they host, continue to pay the price today.

The cost for the handful of people killed Monday in Jidda and their families is lamentable. The cost of miscalculation in the nuclear proliferation game, of course, is almost unthinkable.

By Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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