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How Bush put the screws on Musharraf

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September 05, 2006 15:13 IST
The meeting between the two presidents on September 24, 2003 in the $7,000-per-night suite at New York's Waldorf-Astoria hotel lasted an hour.

Soon afterwards, a White House statement said President George W Bush and Pakistan's General Pervez Musharraf had discussed cooperation on the war on terror, providing troops for Iraq, dialogue with India and Kashmir.

What it did not reveal was that the meeting had also set a trap for Musharraf that would soon lead to the fall of A Q Khan, popularly called the father of the Islamic bomb, and the world's leading blackmarket dealer in nuclear technology.

In his gripping book Shopping for Bombs, the BBC's security correspondent Gordon Corera reveals that unknown to the public and certainly to Pakistani politicians, Bush told the Pakistani leader at the end of their hour-long talks at the Waldorf-Astoria that he should be 'prepared for another visitor and Musharraf should pay great care to what he said.'

That visitor was CIA Director George Tenet.

Asserting that A Q Khan was 'at least as dangerous as Osama bin Laden,' Tenet made a detailed presentation of the evidence against Khan -- collected over many years by his agency and British intelligence -- to a deeply embarrassed Musharraf.

Though the Americans had known of Khan's nuclear bazaar for many years, it was only in 2004, after proof began to emerge that Khan had become too much of a rogue scientist, that they were forced to act. It took the Americans and the British some time to gather strong enough evidence to persuade Musharraf, a close ally after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on America, to act against a national hero in Pakistan.

The discussion regarding Khan in New York was kept secret in Pakistan for several weeks, Corera reveals, because Washington did not want to push Musharraf into a corner. The White House let Musharraf behave as if he had come to know of Khan's deals only after a high level American delegation visited Pakistan many days later.

By that time, it was becoming clear that Libya's Colonel Muammar Gadaffi was changing his attitude towards the West and was promising to tear down the country's nuclear infrastructure built with Khan's help.

Correa's book also provides the first detailed account of the high-wire and ever-tense dealings the Americans and British had with Gadaffi and his son Saif, which led to Libya's renunciation of nuclear weapons.

The book is essentially the first professional biography of A Q Khan in English and his role in nuclear proliferation. It offers a vivid picture of how the ever conniving, overbearing and imperious Khan was finally brought down. How even after Musharraf stripped him of his powers as the head of Pakistan's nuclear programme and put him under house arrest, Khan's sidekicks and admirers continue to believe that he had been sacrificed to satisfy the White House.

Pakistan refuses to allow Khan to be interviewed by American or British officials. Corera thus had to rely on secondary sources to examine the beginning of Pakistan's nuclear programme four decades ago, and to unravel how Khan, who studied metallurgy in Belgium and the Netherlands, eventually became arguably the most powerful person in Pakistan, and one of the most dangerous men in the world.

The riveting inside story of the rise and fall of Khan also reveals how Washington looked away from Pakistan's nuclear programmes because it wanted Islamabad's help in fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. And how the country which almost became a pariah nation during the Clinton administration became a favoured ally soon after 9/11.

These are well-known facts, but Shopping for Arms has scores of other unsettling revelations.

It briefly touches on many American officials who helped to turn America's gaze away from Pakistan's nuclear programme. Among them was Charlie Wilson, a Republican Congressman from Texas. (For the story of a whiskey-swilling, skirt-chasing politician who masterminded the largest covert operation in history and got the mujahideen defeat the Soviet army in Afghanistan, read Charlie Wilson's War. The bestseller by the late George Crile is being made into a big film by Tom Hanks who will play Wilson.)

Despite not meeting Khan and his closest allies, Corera offers many well-researched revelations about how Musharraf finally rendered Khan ineffective. In one of the most interesting passages in the book, Corera writes how top Pakistan army officers met with Khan a few weeks before his fall in January 2004, and confronted him with the evidence against him.

When Khan began shouting at them, they warned they would go public with the information against him unless he confessed. The haughty scientist continued to deny the charges. Though veiled threats were made against Khan -- including references to Guantanamo, the infamous American prison in Cuba -- the army officers failed to elicit a confession.

It was only when Musharraf, unable to resist the rising British and American pressure, summoned Khan and presented him with hard evidence -- including a letter Khan had written to the Iranians telling them to dismantle the equipment they had received from him -- did Khan break down.

'His defenses were suddenly breached and then buckled entirely,' Corera writes. 'Khan literally collapsed before the president, begging for mercy.'

In Corera's book, which reads like a thriller, the readers also get to see how Abdul Qadeer Khan, who was born in Bhopal in 1936 and migrated to Pakistan in 1952, grew increasingly angry towards India. The anger turned venomous when he watched the surrender of Pakistan to India on television after the end of the war for Bangladesh in December 1971.

Three years later, as India tested its first nuclear device, Khan offered then Pakistan prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto his help in creating a nuclear bomb. In 1975, when his Dutch employer discovered Khan had stolen centrifuge designs, he fled to Pakistan, even more resolute to build the bomb.

Khan was more of a nationalist than a Muslim visionary in the 1970s, Corera argues. It took him many years to begin to see Pakistan as the centre of the Muslim world. He was religious, but far from being a fanatic, and served liquor to his foreign friends in his guesthouse near Islamabad. 'He was also intensely superstitious, regularly employing fortune-tellers,' reveals Corera.

During his long stay abroad, Khan, who built a network of German and Dutch friends who became (not always unwittingly) partners in his secret nuclear programme, began to resent the Western stranglehold on nuclear weapons. Despite his Western education and his Dutch-South African wife, that resentment soon turned into hatred for the West. That hatred would never disappear and may have become stronger following his fall.

One wonders whether the fallen hero, now said to be recuperating from prostrate cancer, has the luxury of consulting any more astrologers today, and what advice they might have for him.

Arthur J Pais in New York