The Khan network: lessons and consequences

The exposure of the Pakistan-based scientist Dr AQ Khan's proliferation network and the links between its constituent countries has major consequences for Pakistan and international security.

First, revelations of the extent of Pakistani, Libyan, Iranian and North Korean proliferation have also stimulated the search for new, creative responses to proliferation, such as the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), Russia's entry into it and China's entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). Second, the suspicion over Iran's programme underscores the scope and urgency of the proliferation threat posed by that country. Iran has caused alarm by developing the capability to enrich uranium. Third, there is at least one as yet unnamed state that was also connected with Khan, suggesting still more branches to that network. Indeed, Dr Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), has said that Khan negotiated with people in 20 countries (suppliers, middlemen or customers).

Khan's network represented the first time that a private enterprise controlled all the necessary elements of a nuclear weapons programme. This enterprise lent itself to secondary proliferation and confirmed the global diffusion of the necessary affordable expertise and technology.

As the Financial Times reports, Khan's "loosely linked black market organisation manufactured and delivered, under conditions of high secrecy, products and services so complicated and sensitive that only governments had previously produced them."1 The Khan network had access to highly secret nuclear weapon designs - such as those it passed to Libya - of a second-generation bomb that China provided to Pakistan in the early 1980s. It also established a training course for scientists and engineers and provided real-time expert advice to solve problems.

By selling its wares on the open market, the Khan network raised concerns that non-state and terrorist groups could gain access to technology that would otherwise be unavailable. Furthermore, because he dealt with a number of states, it would have been impossible to ensure that his initial customers remained the end-user of whatever they bought and prevent them from transferring their capabilities to others, including terrorists.

Proliferation is not confined to Khan

The IAEA is conducting a thorough and public investigation into the Khan network and other proliferation channels. By dismantling it and seeking tighter restrictions on the trade to governments, it is creating greater transparency and limiting proliferators' scope for action. Not surprisingly this global market for weapons of mass destruction (WMD), their associated materials and technologies is huge and profitable. Buyers and sellers have included Russia, China, Pakistan and North Korea, as well as private businessmen in the US, Europe, South Africa, Abu Dhabi, Malaysia and Turkey.

The proliferation threat is greater and more urgent than had previously been assumed. For example, North Korea has quadrupled the amount of plutonium it possesses. Libya has obtained many more materials than expected. Few observers thought that Libya could develop such programmes given the technological difficulties that had slowed their nuclear progress.

Iran has gone further than was commonly believed in its efforts to develop its uranium-enrichment capabilities; enriched uranium can be used in centrifuges to build a bomb.

Meanwhile, China remains the world's leading exporter of cruise missiles and Russia and China are still offering Iran, India, and Pakistan nuclear power reactors to satisfy their energy demands. Russia's Ministry for Atomic Energy has resisted US pressure to halt the sale of nuclear power reactors to Iran and has said that will do so even before reaching agreement on returning the spent fuel to Russia.

Disturbing implications

While the fate of Dr Khan and his network remains unclear, it is apparent that nobody will be punished too severely for it. Dr Khan himself was pardoned by Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf the day after he admitted his guilt in February 2004. Although some arrests have occurred in South Africa and Malaysia and pressure is being imposed upon businesses and banks that were involved, the possibility remains that the broader network will be resurrected under different auspices. However, such an outcome remains a faint possibility, because the absence of Khan would represent a serious obstacle. While a restrained reply to Khan's activities might be politically expedient for Washington as it needs Pakistan's support against Al-Qaeda, this apparent passivity poses some very troubling and unanswered questions. Few observers of Pakistan's nuclear programme and of international proliferation believe that Pakistan's military, which has exercised tight control over every aspect of national security, had no knowledge of Khan's activities.

If they were unaware of those activities, this raises still more troubling questions about ability of the Pakistani military to control the country's nuclear technology. For decades, Khan operated Pakistan's key nuclear weapons facility at Kahuta, running that programme in effective independence. One of the key tasks of Pakistan's programme under Khan was to obtain equipment and expertise clandestinely from abroad. Such was Khan's influence that it would be very difficult for Pakistan to reorganise its entire WMD programme to minimise Khan's connection with it.

In any case, removing Khan and reorganising Pakistan's programme does not preclude attempts to create a new, altered network. While the Musharraf regime has gradually asserted greater influence over the programme to diminish Khan's control of the network even before the recent revelations, such actions suggest more than an inkling of what was occurring, despite claims to the contrary.

There can be little doubt of the extent of Khan's

co-operation with North Korea and Libya (on the sale of centrifuges to Libya, North Korea and Iran, for example) or of Iran's connection to North Korea and Khan. Pakistan had bought missiles and associated technology from North Korea under Benazir Bhutto's regime, possibly in return for help with uranium enrichment (Bhutto herself denies this, claiming that it was a cash transaction).

Certainly there is sufficient evidence of the links between Iran, Pakistan and North Korea to raise concerns about continuing proliferation among them. Furthermore,should extreme Islamic forces take power in Pakistan, serious fears would be raised regarding Islamabad's ability to safeguard its nuclear technology.

Further imponderables

Will those who facilitated Khan's network be punished by their authorities or will those governments, such as Pakistan, suppress any knowledge of what is happening with those establishments? Will organisers of new groups build upon the foundations of

Dr Khan's network? For instance, a major potential danger arising out of North Korea's quest for nuclear weapons is that it will sell parts, designs, and technology to buyers indiscriminately. Certainly, advanced weapons technology sales have been an integral part of Pyongyang's strategy to garner foreign revenue.

Much evidence also suggests that North Korea engaged Pakistan and other proliferators regularly and that it was deeply involved in and had to know at least some of the extent of Khan's network. On IAEA investigators believe that Libya may have been secretly sold two tons of uranium hexaflouride (UF6), which is used as feed stock in uranium-enrichment centrifuges. Libya acquired UF6 in 2001 from the Khan network but IAEA officials say that its ultimate destination remains to be determined.

These are only some of the issues arising from the revelations about the Khan network, but they underscore the threats posed by the scientist's rogue nuclear operations to international security and the urgency of getting control of its and other programmes before it is too late.

Dr Stephen Blank is Research Professor of National Security Affairs at the Strategic Studies Institute of the US Army War College. The views expressed here do not represent those of the US Army, US Department of Defense or the US government


1 Stephen Fidler and Victoria Burnett, 'The Nuclear Entrepreneur: Khan's Network Shows Terrorists Have a Lot More Options Than We Thought,' Financial Times, 7 April 2004

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