After Bhutto: a Nuclear Pakistan?

In the wake of Bhutto’s tragic assassination, renewed international attention focuses itself on Pakistan’s political instability and nuclear capabilities. The United States and President Musharraf adamantly state that the Pakistani military represents the only stable safeguard against potential radical extremists and Al Qaeda sympathizers taking over Islamabad and controlling Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and technology. Playwright WAJAHAT ALI received an exclusive interview with Guardian journalist Adrian Levy, author of the explosive new book, “Deception: Pakistan, the United States, and the Secret Trade in Nuclear Weapons,” to discuss Pakistan’s political past, present, and future regarding nuclear proliferation and its volatile relationship with the United States.

ALI: Adrian Levy, thanks for agreeing to do this interview. All around the world, Benazir Bhutto’s assassination tops the headlines. You’ve done extensive and exhaustive research on Pakistan’s international and domestic policies. What are the repercussions of this tragedy in relation to Pakistan’s current political stability?

LEVY: It will have an enormous impact on Pakistan by engendering more instability. The reasons for that are that the Pakistan Political Party [Bhutto’s political party], although very feudal and by no means perfect and by no means transparent and open, is still a tremendous political operation with a lot of grassroots support. That support is not solely based in her home state of Sindh, but there is consolidated support from most progressives for her that has emerged merely due to the frustration with 9 years of Musharraf’s military rule. Lot of people who are not sympathetic to Bhutto, personally or her party, see the chance to vote as a vote against Musharraf and against his party, the PML-Q, the “King’s” party as it is called in Pakistan. That party represents only the wishes and needs of the military and certain pragmatic politicians whose interests are only in survival and not in progressing any kind of liberal, progressive, secular movements in Pakistan.

The feelings, generally, from numerous people I’ve talked to in Pakistan is that although Bhutto was an imperfect electoral card and although an imperfect candidate – who has been beset by corruption allegations and like all parties she had tremendous problems with her two terms mainly in her weakness in standing up to the military – nevertheless, people saw [her] as the beginning of something. The start of something: the commencing of a new dialogue with the military. She was seen as the foil, and once this began – if support was strong enough- the PML-Q vote [Musharraf’s party] would’ve been minute. Musharraf would’ve been weakened even with tremendous vote rigging involved.

The result would be a National Assembly that would not be answerable to the military but to a democratic system. This is only the very, very, very beginnings of something, but it is better than the option of Musharraf retaining all political power according to the frustrated voices of Pakistanis wishing to see a democratic Pakistani system. Their voices are not being listened to. The worst possible situation of all is for there to be no election, or the candidates are simply the military’s chosen candidates or the military’s sympathetic coalition, the MMA, the religious coalition, which as we know only polled 12% of the vote in the last election.

Another reason her death is significant is that, in essence, it is a blow to a buoyant progressive movement. A lot of people will feel downtrodden, very pessimistic. It strengthens the military’s hand in Pakistan. Fear, chaos, and anarchy in Pakistan strengthen the military’s hand. It also plays very much in the military argument that democracy is young, incapable and juvenile even, and that only the military is the professional, solid entity that can hold together a fractured Pakistan. They create a false equation that goes like this: “Without the military, there would be chaos. Without the military, there would be an Islamic coup. Without the military, the nuclear assets of Pakistan may well fall into the hands of Jihadists – or parties and goals – antithetic to the West.” This is completely crass and a complete un-writing of the real situation in Pakistan.

The reality is that the military have, throughout, manipulated the Islamist vote. They have given succor, money, training, arms and political power to the Islamists and religious conservatives. They’ve brought them into the military coalition; they’ve used them against the military’s moderate, liberal opponents. In fact, if we look at Musharraf through hard objective facts, since 1999 virtually all facets of Pakistani life have gotten worse. The only facets that have not gone worse are due to the swamping of Pakistan by U.S. money. When they talk of the Pakistani economy and economic growth being more buoyant, these are simply figures that are bent around the artificial situation of billions of dollars being pumped into Pakistan by America. [The U.S. has given Pakistan more than 10 billion dollars of aid in the past 5 years.]

In effect, society has become far more radicalized, far less democratic, the institutions of democracy have been undone by the military. The military has become tremendously wealthy, tremendously unreliable even. The personal wealth of the top tier generals, I mean, each general has assets of more than 10 to 15 million dollars. If you look at the military businesses, they turned in a 10 billion dollar profit, which is the same size profit last year as the Hong Kong Shanghai Bank. They’re a political class of their own, and their interests aren’t the same as the democratic movement of Pakistan.

Let’s talk in depth about Pakistan’s military and intelligence agencies, the ISI. First, from your research, how powerful are these agencies? If indeed they are powerful and pervasive, how could they not have known of A.Q. Khan’s nuclear proliferation activities [Abdul Qadeer Khan is known as the “Father of Pakistan’s Nuclear Bomb,” a Pakistani scientist and engineer who confessed to operating a nuclear proliferation program]? How can students who besieged Pakistan’s Red Mosque in July–which is sitting right in front of ISI agencies – be fully loaded with guns and ammunition? Are the ISI and military incompetent, or are they highly involved in the daily political happenings of Pakistan?

All the research shows, and all of my objective sources that include external agencies and former members of Pakistan’s military, that the nuclear proliferation activities of A.Q. Khan were effectively a state run policy. They evolved out of the desk of General Zia [Zia al Haq ruled Pakistan as a military dictator for 11 years] in August 1988, and they evolved in the knowledge that in 1988 the U.S. made it clear as soon as the Soviets had left Afghanistan, all U.S. aid would be cut off to Pakistan since Pakistan would not be needed anymore.

So, Pakistan was looking at two things: 1) The need to get hold of hard cash outside the monies they would now lose from the U.S., and 2) To generate a political presence of power that could stand up to U.S., since it could no longer be counted as a continuous, consistent, solid ally. The leadership of both the ISI and the military, after the death of General Zia, thought the best way to do this was to woo political allies through use and deployment of the country’s nuclear assets and to make hard cash by selling those assets. This is critical in understanding the motivation behind what happened to A.Q. Khan.

The ISI and military leaders sat down and had a meeting during the last 3 months of Zia’s life, and then after his death, the leader of the military, General Baig, and the leader of the ISI, Hamid Gul, sat down and discussed a term of defiance. Would it be a nuclear defiance, or an economic defiance? What was the best way of creating an Islamic movement that could stand up to U.S. interference?

One thing to keep in mind is that the U.S. very much created the grounds for this to happen. The U.S. relationship in Pakistan has been feeble, a roller coaster, a feast and famine existence. America either loved Pakistan when it needed it politically, or it abandoned it when it didn’t. I want to throw forward one critical point to understanding this idea. If we can just look at the hard figures of U.S. aid to Pakistan during every period of dictatorship in Pakistan, we see that U.S. aid has been enormous, absolutely enormous. It has been bountiful: both “black” aid by the CIA and overt aid by Congress. And during the weak period of democracy in the 90’s when fledgling political parties in Pakistan tried to stand on their own feet, U.S. aid only amounted to $1 million a year. America never tried to build a civil society, instead they’ve only supported dictatorships [in Pakistan.]
In your book you name names and state that at least 5 U.S. presidents had knowledge of Pakistan’s nuclear ambitions and could have taken a more proactive and competent approach in curbing what is now a volatile and potentially explosive situation. Let’s talk about America’s love- hate relationship with Pakistan. Originally, in the 70’s you mentioned U.S. was loathe to have a nuclear Pakistan, however the State Department, especially in the 80’s, engaged in highly dubious, if not illegal, leaks of information and support to Pakistan to help them build nuclear technology. How complicit has the United States been in this deception? Who has been deceiving whom? How has U.S., if at all, helped Pakistan go nuclear and if so how does it benefit U.S. foreign policy interests?

The critical time is 1979: the world changed. We have the Soviets invading Afghanistan, the Shah fleeing Iran, and Khomeini returning to lead the Islamic Revolution from Paris to Tehran. When that happened, American began to feel insecure suspecting a front against it that could expand to Asia. The feeling of Carter’s National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski – and he lobbied for this in memos he wrote in 1979 – was that the gold standard of U.S. should be shifted. No longer should emphasis be placed on human rights and non-proliferation, but these should be moved down the political agenda in order to court Pakistan anew and win it under our umbrella. Carter’s administration ran out of steam, but we see as soon as Reagan’s administration came in the White House, a huge number of moves from the State Department to the Pentagon were made to Pakistan to attract them to the table. Those offers were very clear: the information that has been released through the Freedom of Information shows meetings between Haig, the Secretary of State and other U.S. officials saying, “We will not mind Pakistan having a bomb. That is not an issue for us now. We need to use them as a springboard for our support of the mujaheddin in Afghanistan. We are prepared to set aside, or, not look at issues of the Pakistan bomb.”

In other meetings they were more overt and actually said, “just take it off our radar. Get the bomb program off our radar. Don’t embarrass us with it.” So, in terms of deception, it is a deception of the American people. The American people are being told that non-proliferation was the gold standard of the government, in fact, it wasn’t. Non- proliferation was sold down the river to woo Pakistan in this temporary relationship of 8 or 9 years. And Pakistan, of course then, having been armed and enabled by America that not just turned a blind eye but actively gave assistance to the program, having done that, America then turned its back on Pakistan in 1989-1990. Pakistan warned three U.S. officials, “if you turn our back on us, we will sell our technology and Iran will be our first client.”

Now, that message was given to Norman Schwarzkopff at Central Command, it was given to Bob Oakley, the U.S. Ambassador in Islamabad, and it was given to the Assistant Secretary of State in the Pentagon. All three were told and all three reported back. And, the decision was that Pakistan wasn’t needed now. The attention was on Gulf War 1, the attention was on the Middle East, so Pakistan was abandoned, and it did what it said it would do and began to sell its nuclear technology. We know through several interviews given by many people in the CIA and working in the Pentagon as analysts that active operations to prevent Pakistan from selling and procuring nuclear program were sabotaged from within the White House. It’s actually a question of enabling the program. Reagan’s administration enabled it, and Bush Sr.’s administration then basically turned their back on Pakistan in 1990 when the country was unstable, when democracy was weak, when the [Pakistani] civil society needed support from the U.S. So, it was an inevitable consequence that Pakistan would sell. Any claims that American had a progressive view towards nuclear technology wasn’t true. It was duplicitous. Pakistan was very much a victim of this, in essence. It was looking for consistency from U.S. and never received it.

First, please explain the relationship of Musharraf and Bush post 9-11 and specifically how it relates to Pakistan’s nuclear capability and ambitions? Second, one argument is that Musharraf’s military dictatorship, although it is hardly labeled as such by the White House, must be supported out of necessity to ensure nuclear technology does not fall in the hands of extremists and Al Qaeda. Basically, the line goes: if no Musharraf, then Al Qaeda has a nuclear bomb. How legitimate is this threat and assertion?

It’s completely false, a completely false assertion put forward by two groups of people: a circle of neo-conservatives from the Vice President’s office and the Pentagon. They didn’t want to get involved in the messy business of building a democracy, and they did want to get involved with dealing with a dictatorship, because it is easier to talk down on the phone to a General than it was to talk about a messy democratic system. They were on the verge, before 9-11, in proclaiming Pakistan a terrorist state for supporting Al-Qaeda, for nuclear proliferation. In fact, if we look at all the facts, we had a military regime that was suppressing human rights, that was proliferating, that was supporting terrorism, that had a threatening link to 9-11. That was not Iraq. It wasn’t Iraq. There was only one country that ticked all of those boxes: Pakistan. And yet, a group of neo-cons around the President had an agenda that went back to 1992 and that agenda was Iraq. They thought Saddam should be the next suitable target. Consequently, all information on Pakistan were downscaled. Quite honestly, the greatest threat was instability in Pakistan, and yet that’s something American didn’t want to get involved with.

So, how legitimate is that claim that Pakistan’s nuclear program will allow itself to fall in the hands of Al-Qaeda or ­

Absolutely impossible. It’s impossible for a weapon to be released. That just cannot happen. The Pakistani military have their own command and control structure, their own methods of dealing with it. It’s a fear story that is put forward to justify the support of the dictatorship. It’s a ludicrous argument.

The modern fear is that the “Axis of Evil” or rogue nations are stealthily obtaining nuclear technology. This charged is leveled against Iraq under Saddam, Iran’s new government, and Al Qaeda sympathizers and Taliban. How credible is this allegation? Also, what is Pakistan’s role in helping these countries and agents achieve their goals?

The Pakistan military and intelligence agencies were selling to these countries, and they didn’t allow it to slip into the hands of the jihadists. The Pakistani military set up country to country deals They first offered all of their technology to Iraq, but Iraq didn’t believe the offer was genuine and thought it was entrapment, so they turned them down. Pakistan then went back to Iran and set up a relationship with Iran. Then, in 1993-1994, they did the same in their deals with North Korea. Those deals came from within the military and A.Q. Khan’s network was simply the proxy by which it happened. By 2002, we reached a situation where Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Syria, and Saudi Arabia were all either in the position to be negotiating for or possessing nuclear technology. This was a government enterprise. Government carriers were used. Government transporter planes, ships, the Navy, and air force were used to transport. And A.Q. Khan was tracked at every stage by American intelligence until the end of the 90’s and beginning of the millennium. So, they began to know what he was doing. The picture that was portrayed in the intelligence was that this was a government enterprise and not simply A.Q. Khan.

A.Q. Khan is routinely painted as the “father of the Islamic bomb.” In fact, in 2004, he appeared live on television and claimed personal responsibility for nuclear proliferation and selling of information to “rogue governments.” Subsequently, he was pardoned but placed under house arrest by Musharraf, who feigned ignorance regarding nuclear black market deals happening under his nose. If what you just said is true, then how can one man, an elderly scientist no less, escape the scrutiny of his nation and international policing forces and freely deal nuclear technology? Why was he used as scapegoat?

A deal was done in 2003, because Pakistan had signed up on the “War on Terror” and was now a consolidated partner–the military was seen as a partner without whom the war could not be fought. So, they decided to absolve the reputation of the Pakistani military by finding a scapegoat: A.Q. Khan. If Khan would agree to stand up for this [nuclear proliferation], then no one else would interrogate him, no one else would be given access to him. And the whole deal would be dealt with within Pakistan. The military will be absolved, their military’s reputation protected and preserved, and they would continue to be an ally. So, Khan appeared on T.V. in 2004 in January and he gives his great speech, a mea culpa of “I, alone, along with a small band supporters did this grand enterprise,” and sure enough the next day he is pardoned. And the investigation is done later, 18 months later, written up by Musharraf. And a line was drawn under the affair.

Why do some people in Pakistan or “the Muslim world” consider A.Q. Khan to be a hero, whereas the rest of the world paints him as a criminal and nuclear proliferator? What explains this marked discrepancy in characterization?

In one sense, he is a hero: a man with relatively paltry means took a country that was, at that stage, under-equipped and created for it through his brilliant organization a sophisticated nuclear program. For which, you can have nothing but the highest respect in that he put together a massive enterprise run very efficiently. We can see quite reasonably why certain people would see him as a remarkable individual. He was betrayed very much by the military he worked for; he was sacrificed by them for very cynical political reasons.

In that sense, the military of Pakistan has been the enemy of the wider “Islamic” community. And Khan was seen as simply a dutiful assistant of Pakistan who loved his country and serviced that program with remarkable efficiency. A lot of people over-emphasized the money that Khan made, his individuals assets and etc., this is just part of a smear against Khan. He was mostly motivated by patriotism. He was mostly motivated by his desire to see Pakistan stand up to India. Mostly motivated by what he saw as a bigotry with the non proliferation act and bigotry with its enforcement which allowed Israel, for example, to develop a covert bomb with no word about it, and yet Pakistan couldn’t have one. The un-level playing field where countries like Israel, South Africa, Argentina and others could secretly acquire technology, and yet Pakistan was forbidden. So, one can understand why Khan was lionized and treated as a hero.

Pakistani patriots and supporters say India is nuclear and has fought several wars against Pakistan. Israel is an ally of India and it’s nuclear. Major Western countries are nuclear. Why should Pakistan be denied this same right? Isn’t it merely protecting its borders and sovereignty? What gives Western countries the right to have it and not Pakistan? Is this a legitimate question?

It’s a very, very good question. It’s a really good question. It’s the hardest question to answer. I think the problems have been created by the proliferation mainly with the situation with India. India did obtain a nuclear problem and it was de facto accepted. And when one reads the report from the State Department and Pentagon regarding this, they accepted that Pakistan is going to take this badly and it is an inequality that India will be accepted and the Pakistan program wouldn’t. That’s absolutely right.

But the major problem stepped in, because as we discussed before, America was slow to respond with any consistent regard to Pakistan, so Pakistan then went on and developed a proliferation system. This is brand new within nuclear history. Which other countries proliferated on the scale that Pakistan did, with the contempt that Pakistan showed both to organizations and to nation states? The [Pakistani nuclear] program may well have been accepted if it was not for the proliferation that created a situation in the international intelligence community; that just enraged them. When the deals were exposed, the extent, depth, and breadth of it, that basically created the movement to go after the Pakistan program. But, you’re right, there is a huge inequality in a way that system is administrated by the protectionist powers–that’s absolutely right.

The last question. We often see movies of the 50’s and 60’s depicting the Cold War hysteria–mushroom clouds, the Cuban Missile Crisis, children hiding under desks preparing for potential nuclear annihilation, MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) situations and what not. Is this the vision of the world’s future? What can be done now via foreign policy or international organizations that can curb the dangerous proliferation of nuclear weaponry? Is it hopeless?

I think the most important thing of all, and it this comes back to your initial question, for most people who have the money, who have an interest, have the influence and interests to work towards creating a stable Pakistan. I think that really, really matters. I think a nuclear-free Middle East is desirable. Disarming Israel, assuming all the powers around it are disarmed, that idea will simply not be realizable. I don’t think Israel will be persuaded to do it. I think creating a progressive movement in Pakistan that itself will fight against terrorism, Al Qaeda, and create a liberal, more secular consensus might be the answer. In order to do that, we have to support democracy over there. We have to honor the wishes of the majority of the Pakistan people who don’t want to live under military dictatorship. So, in America’s policy sense, it has to shift from the easy path of propping up generals and to the messy path of assisting countries in nation building. It needs to be consistent towards countries like Pakistan.

WAJAHAT ALI is Pakistani Muslim American who is neither a terrorist nor a saint. He is a playwright, essayist, humorist, and recent J.D. whose work, “The Domestic Crusaders,” is the first major play about Muslim Pakistani Americans living in a post 9-11 America. His blog is at He can be reached at




Wajahat Ali is a poet, playwright and essayist living in the Bay Area. His widely acclaimed work, The Domestic Crusaders, the first major play about Muslim-Americans was produced by Ishmael Reed. He can be reached at: