Pakistan Must Come Clean on the Nukes-for-Sale Issue to Save Its Neck. By Shaheen Sehbai

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GENERAL PERVEZ Musharraf has tried his best to pack the splintered pieces of our nuclear glass in a patriotic wrap and shove them under the 'national interest' carpet. But in doing so he rubbed and drubbed almost everyone on the wrong side, except th

The entire focus of his strategy last week, including the meeting with Dr AQ Khan, the subsequent TV apology, the mercy petition and the pardon, was to pacify the domestic scene as Pakistanis were genuinely enraged at the treatment meted out to the scientists while the Army tried to pass on the blame and wriggle out of the mess.

Musharraf did not seem worried about the international ramifications of what he and his whiz kids were facing. His fury and fire was only directed at the Pakistanis who were questioning him, and his predecessors, as the magnitude and importance of the scandal unfolded in the international media.

"If Pakistan faces any threat, it is from the unwise politicians, unwise and unprincipled scientists, unwise columnists and analysts, the pseudo-philosophers or the crying relatives of those arrested," the General said without even admitting an iota of responsibility which the Army and the intelligence agencies should have admitted for their enormous failure. His was a very delicate balancing act in which he knew the reality but was not in a position to admit it publicly. His frustration and bitterness was out of control, oozing from each word and each expression.

In a very emotional news conference, shown live on the TV, a very angry and disgusted Musharraf was trying to control the damage, sheepishly at times. At others he appeared genuinely concerned, worried about the fallout of the scandal on Pakistan's security. He was hiding his anger and helplessness as if he was a complainant who had been grossly wronged.

His thrust of arguments was, however, simplistic and self-serving, filled with repeated doses of bravado and tough talk. For instance, at least 10 times or even more, he attacked those who had in any way hinted at a roll back of the Pakistani nuclear program. No serious commentator had done that except a few who may have been tempted to speculate about the future in view of his past U-Turns.

Yet his repeated logic was that admitting anything would mean asking for a ton load of trouble. More than once, he even repeated in disgust that even if Pakistan Army or the State had done anything wrong, it should not have been discussed in public by the local media. He even conceded that he was trying to 'shield' Dr AQ Khan who was still his hero but a hero who had to be disgraced in public 'to save Pakistan.'

Looking at Musharraf's performance since 9/11, it is now clear that all the 'sacred cows' and vital national security issues, so sacrosanct to the Establishment, have now become subject of intense national scrutiny and controversy. The irony, if one can face it, is that on all these issues the position of the Establishment has taken a 180 degree turn.

These issues were identified by Musharraf as the Taliban policy, extremism and fundamentalism, Kashmir and the Nuclear policy. What was the Establishment position on these issues before 9/11 and where does it stand now. Even on the nuclear issue Musharraf tried to isolate Dr AQ Khan but had to backtrack. Why so?

The answer to this critical question is that the nuclear policy is not controversial and Pakistanis would never have tolerated humiliation of their national heroes the way they are being handled by Musharraf. Two weeks ago he was pledging before the world in Davos that if anyone was found guilty of proliferation he would not be spared. "Pakistan would move against any violator because they are enemies of the state," he told CNN. Why then pardon a traitor and still declare him a hero? It is just because the Pakistani nation would not let him do that.

The big question is whether Musharraf has been able to convince the world. Not so, as the immediate IAEA reaction was that the real probe had just begun. IAEA chief Mohamed Al-Baradei said Khan's confession was just the "tip of the iceberg." IAEA spokesman, Mark Gwozdecky, said Khan was not working alone. "This apparent nuclear supermarket is the most dangerous phenomenon we've seen in many years. Unfortunately it doesn't end with Khan and for us what we need to know is who supplied what, when and to whom and did anyone else get this kind of assistance."

Musharraf believes he personally can handle these questions coming from the international community. "I will stand between Khan and the outside world," he told the media.

This would, however, be a very dangerous option for Pakistan. Musharraf's record in resisting international pressure has been appalling, to say the least. The moment he is seriously threatened by the US, he would concede everything. Right now the Bush administration needs him for other security interests yet he cannot obtain guarantees that this issue will not be revisited any time later.

Thus Musharraf must not be allowed to handle this issue single handedly by patriots who want to save Pakistan's nuclear program. If Washington and IAEA need Musharraf so badly, they must be persuaded by a united Pakistan to declare this case closed, and now. This is highly unlikely, though.

In his statements to the domestic audience Musharraf has tried to appear tough refusing to allow any independent investigation or providing evidence to the UN. Yet what would be prudent for Pakistan is that a high level Nuclear Damage Control Committee be set up which should include respected Pakistani patriots from all fields, like serving or retired Generals, judges, bureaucrats, diplomats or politicians so that whenever anyone talks to Pakistan, the collective wisdom of the nation is applied and all matters are not left for one man to decide, and that too a person who has a sorry record of multiple capitulations in the recent past.

The nuclear scandal is not going away anywhere soon, though Musharraf wants it to disappear, at least in the Pakistani media. Pakistan has to prepare for the consequences of the collective failures, security and intelligence lapses included. Dr Khan may have agreed to become the fall guy, under coercion or to save his skin, but his public confessions have brought Pakistan before the world jury for a critical trial and judgment.

This case will have to be contested by all the Pakistanis, because Pakistan will have to come clean if the world was to forgive the indiscretions of the past. Allowed to deal with it alone, Musharraf may make major compromises. Unless everyone involved is brought to book and credible guarantees are given, Pakistan will be pronounced guilty and sent to the gallows with Musharraf enjoying life in Boston.

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