Nuclear powers

2008-07-23 00:00

A vainglorious, unscrupulous nuclear scientist; an unstable Asian state in which the strings of power are pulled by a ruthless military caste; and a superpower that consistently scores foreign policy own goals: the ingredients of a thriller, you might think. But this is a work of non-fiction, an important story told in a readable, although highly detailed way by two Guardian investigative journalists.

The scientist is A. Q. Khan. Using blueprints of centrifuge technology stolen in Europe and illicitly acquired materials, he succeeded in producing enough enriched uranium to create a self-styled Islamic atomic device. He was to become a national hero, officially named Father of the Bomb.

Pakistan eventually emerged as an exporter of nuclear technology with links to a number of erratic regimes. This came unstuck when the Libyan connection, and the role of several South African firms in Khan’s Project A/B, was exposed.

The United States, obsessed by the Russians in Afghanistan, then Iraq and now Iran, consistently turned a blind eye to Pakistan’s growing nuclear capacity. American funds designed for anti-Russian insurgency were diverted to the bomb project. Much of Iran’s nuclear programme, about which the Americans are so paranoid, can be sourced to Pakistan. Even worse, an increasingly fundamentalist Pakistan military has bankrolled and supported Sunni irregulars, jihadists, the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

The authors conclude that U.S. administrations have consistently lied to Congress about Pakistan and in one notorious case destroyed the career of an expert who tried to tell the truth. The idea of nuclear capability in the hands of a fragile state, some of whose territory is now run by the Taliban and whose madrasahs are training grounds for terrorists, is chilling enough. But of equal concern are the words of an American official the day after 9/11: “History starts today”.

Christopher Merrett

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