Saturday, 16 August 2008

Book review: Deception: Pakistan, the United States, and the Secret Trade in Nuclear Weapons

A few years ago when Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan appeared on television and confessed to having orchestrated the proliferation of nuclear technology to various ‘rogue’ states like Iran, North Korea and Libya all on his own, I had my doubts. I’m sure many of you also thought along the same lines. Surely all this could not have been done by one man without the consent of his government? However, I had shrugged it off thinking that it would be too much to expect anyone else within the Pakistani establishment to be held to task. Especially not when Pakistan and its CEO were both playing such a crucial role in the War on Terror.

Well, here’s a gripping book which confirms the suspicions which so many of us felt at that time and on various other occasions. Levy and Scott-Clark’s “Deception” tracks in excruciating detail, almost on a blow-by-blow basis, the development of Pakistan’s nuclear programme from its inception till the present day. It is a scholarly tome created with a lot of attention to detail. The notes to this book alone run to over eighty five pages. It has an elaborate index and a lengthy bibliography. The main book spans over 449 pages. In fact, at times the amount of minute detail crammed into this book makes it slightly heavy reading, even though it is mostly riveting stuff.

Deception is a mix of political and personal detail. It has details of A.Q. Khan’s household, stories about Zia-ul-Haq, Benazir and Musharaf, power play in Washington D.C., Delhi, Islamabad etc. According to Levy and Scott-Clark, deception took places at various levels all over the world. During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the Americans choose to turn the Nelson’s eye towards Pakistan’s activities. Later when they knew that proliferation was taking place on a large scale from Pakistan and were about to act on it, 9/11 occurred. The US needed Pakistan’s services once again. Therefore, rather than take Pakistan to task, Khan’s confession was stage managed so that everyone else could be off the hook.

Even thought most of what’s detailed in Deception consists of stuff we know or would have guessed, there were a few surprises for me. For example, Levy and Scott-Clark say that the Americans came to know Iraq had received nuclear technology and know-how from Pakistan under a deal made in 1990 only after the Iraq invasion.

If there is to be something negative to be said about this book, it is that at times Levy and Scott-Clark adopt a tone that has too much shock and bitterness written into it, the sort of bitterness that can only be caused by deception and betrayal by someone you deeply trusted. The chapters in this book have names oozing melodrama such as “Into the Valley of Death”, “A Fragment of the Zionist Mind”, “Gangsters in Bangles” etc. There is no attempt made to examine whether Khan’s activities could ever be justified, even to a limited extent. India, Pakistan and Israel are not signatories to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (“NPT”) which prohibits its signatories from developing nuclear weapons or passing them to anyone else. That is, all signatories except the established five nuclear powers. If Pakistan is not a signatory to the NPT, why should it be restricted from selling or passing on nuclear technology to other countries? If Khan acted with the full knowledge and consent of the Pakistani government (as argued by Levy and Scott-Clark), then his actions were those of a sovereign state not constrained by the NPT.

I am not for a movement arguing that the proliferation of nuclear weapons is a good idea. However, it is possible to argue that if the USA, UK, China, Russia and France can possess nuclear weapons, so can Pakistan, India, Libya and Sierra Leone. The proponents of the NPT have always adopted the attitude that many wanna-be nuclear powers are too irresponsible to be given access to such powerful weapons. In other words, a nuclear armed Iran or Libya is much more likely to use the N-bomb, than say, France or the United States. Even though it is possible to pick holes in this argument, it cannot be denied that if the number of nuclear powers in the world were to go up, the chances of a nuclear conflagration somewhere in the world will also undoubtedly increase. Therefore, I do agree with Levy and Scott-Clark that the actions of Khan and his sponsors and abettors have placed the world in much greater jeopardy than it would have been otherwise.

Despite this irritant, I really enjoyed reading Deception. The authors Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark currently work for the Guardian as senior correspondents. They are the authors of two highly acclaimed books, The Amber Room: The Fate of the World’s Greatest Lost Treasure and The Stone of Heaven: Unearthing the Secret History of Imperial Green Jade. Currently Adrian Levy lives in London and Catherine Scott-Clark is based in France.

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