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Last Updated: Thursday, 10 March 2005, 18:08 GMT
The story that refuses to die
aamer ahmed khan
By Aamer Ahmed Khan
BBC News

Time magazine cover
How Time magazine portrayed AQ Khan
Dr AQ Khan was once revered in Pakistan as the father of the country's nuclear weapons development programme.

He is now a pariah spending time under virtual house arrest in the Pakistani capital Islamabad, a city that was once his citadel.

On 3 February, 2004, Dr Khan went on national TV to admit that he had shared Pakistan's coveted nuclear secrets to groups and nations who aspired to building weapons of mass destruction.

He sought forgiveness from his countrymen, accepting full responsibility for his actions and absolving all Pakistani governments of any blame.

Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf called national editors to Islamabad shortly after Dr Khan's disclosures and asked them to forget about the whole affair.

The man responsible had suffered a total loss of prestige and therefore needed no further punishment, the president said.

Journalists were told that Pakistan would have faced horrendous consequences had Dr Khan not been asked to admit to his clandestine activities.

But now it was all over and it was best to let sleeping dogs lie, Gen Musharraf had concluded, firmly.

Most did as they were told.

'More dangerous'

Yet a year after those sensational events, the story refuses to die.

Protester in Pakistan with portrait of Abdul Qadeer Khan
Khan is still widely seen in Pakistan as a hero

As the global anti-proliferation tightens its net around the states harbouring not-so-secret nuclear ambitions, Dr Khan's name keeps creeping up again and again.

In a 14 February cover story by Time magazine titled Merchant of Menace, the magazine said that Dr Khan had single-handedly made the world a more dangerous place than was previously imaginable.

The Time magazine report said that the proliferation network put together by Dr Khan was "still operational".

That was swiftly denied by the government in Islamabad.

Now the Pakistan government has formally admitted that Dr Khan had given "a few centrifuges" to Iran.

Major US publications have continued to follow the story, refusing to believe the Pakistan government's claim that the AQ Khan saga was over.

That may not be hard to understand, given the macabre scenarios associated with the prospects of theft and use of nuclear materials for terrorist purposes.

What is perhaps less comprehensible is the lukewarm response that such stories now generate in Pakistan, a country that many in the West believe ought to be more worried about the affair than any other.

The answer, say analysts, may lie in the curious nature of the US-Pakistan relationship.

Classified information of any nature, argue these analysts, has become a highly valuable bargaining chip in the post-September 2001 world.

Few countries appreciate this more than Pakistan, which has used its knowledge of the al-Qaeda network with great dexterity in what analysts have often described as its thrust-and-parry relationship with the US.

In doing that, say analysts, Pakistan is only putting into use some bitter lessons it learnt from the Afghan war.

Pakistan stunned

Simply put, the most important of these lessons says that the moment you give your more powerful allies all that they need, they have no more use for you.

AQ Khan
Khan is now living in virtual house arrest

Pakistan's role in the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan was not enough to keep the western world its ally forever.

Once the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan towards the end of the 1980s, the US lost interest in the region with a finality that left its allies in the Pakistani establishment stunned.

Its current role in the proliferation business, however willingly and competently it is played, is similarly unlikely to permanently endear the West to a country that is seen to have been unable to look after its destructive technologies in the first place.

Perhaps Pakistan has decided to play it bit by bit, say analysts, and thereby ensure being a vital part of the game for as long as the game lasts.

If information is a strategic asset, it must be spent with extreme caution. And with a miserly hand. As an asset, especially for a military government, information is to be used to keep allies grateful - and dependent.

It may look like a dangerous game. But for countries such as Pakistan, the world has always been a dangerous place.

In the 1980s, Pakistan and its surrounding region was supplying the world with a bulk of its narcotics. In the 1990s, the same region was turning into the hub of a global terror regime.

Half way through the first decade of the 21st century, the country finds itself at the centre of a worldwide nuclear proliferation controversy.

Pakistani analysts thus seem convinced that the AQ Khan affair is here to stay.

The world may get to learn a lot more about it, but only over a period of time, only bit by bit.

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