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More nuclear accusations

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PAKISTAN as a nuclear scofflaw is back in western headlines. Yet another letter allegedly once held by A.Q. Khan and now in possession of Simon Henderson, a British journalist, suggests that senior army officials, including former army chief Jahangir Karamat, were paid off for permitting the transfer of nuclear technology to North Korea in the late 1990s. The government and some of the former officials implicated have issued strong, and predictable, denials, but in the absence of a categorical denial by A.Q. Khan himself question marks will remain. The North Korea-Pakistan connection is an old one with allegations emerging every once in a while that Pakistan acquired missile technology from North Korea in what may have involved some kind of quid pro quo.

At least two points need to be made here. First, technically speaking, Pakistan is unlikely to have violated any international laws even if the allegations are true because, officials here believe, the relevant treaties are not binding on the country. However, domestic laws of many countries, particularly the US, prevent certain bilateral relations with countries accused of trading in nuclear paraphernalia with states such as North Korea. Given the growing anti-Pakistan mood in the US Congress, a routine and dismissive approach to serious allegations may only add to the problems the country is already facing. Second, the latest allegations only reinforce the need for the long-delayed reckoning with the choices the security establishment has made over the past few decades. Take just the country's nuclear programme as an example. Realistically, while India was pursuing nuclear weapons, Pakistan had little option but to develop a deterrent capability of its own. But somehow in pursuing credible minimum deterrence, choices were made that suggest little regard for the national interest. Some of the proliferation accusations against Pakistan, if true, can only be explained by breathtakingly poor safeguards and oversight mechanisms and an element of naked greed. That Pakistan suffers from a horrible image problem globally is partly because of the unnecessary and dangerous choices made here. It's never too late to clean up a mess, however. The country needs and deserves answers.


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