Well-known commentator and ex-RAW honcho B. Raman (about whom I have blogged) has written an elaborate article explaining why A.Q. Khan’s release could prove to be dangerous. Towards the end of his article, B. Raman says:
Khan is bitter against the West, particularly the US , for allegedly humiliating him all these years. Even in the past, he was known for his close friendship with Islamic fundamentalist leaders such as Maulana Fazlur Rahman and Qasi Hussein Ahmed, the Amir of the Jamaat-e-Islami (JEI). He believes that he owes his release to their consistent support to him. He is also very close to anti-US officers of the Inter-Services Intelligence and the Army-- serving as well as retired-- including Lt.Gen.Hamid Gul, former DG of the ISI. The danger in future will be not so much about his helping other countries as about his helping the anti-US jihadi groups, including Al Qaeda, in acquiring a military nuclear or a dirty bomb capability
There is every possibility that B. Raman is right.
However, I would like to consider a different and positive possibility:
Dr. Khan is not dangerous as long as he does not have government infrastructure supporting him and access to nuclear technology. A man just released from house arrest is unlikely to be able to lay hands on fissible materials and pass them on. There is a possibility that A.Q. Khan may try to teach a group of terrorists how to acquire and use nuclear materials resulting in a dirty bomb. However, since Pakistan is still receiving US aid, I assume that the US still has some say in the manner of his release (though it was stage-managed to be portrayed as the result of a court order. I assume that Dr. Khan will be under round-the-clock surveillance. If he contacts anyone or anybody contacts him, that person will also come under surveillance, leading to arrest and detention. It is also possible that Dr. Khan has agreed to this surveillance as a condition for his release.
By releasing Dr. Khan, the Pakistani government scores a few brownie points with its population which has always regarded Dr. Khan as a hero. As Swat is under increasing threat, it is important for the Pakistani government to be on the right side of popular opinion. No, I am not saying that buttering up to people by releasing Dr. Khan after doing a quiet deal with him is something a democratically elected government should habitually do. However, these are not ordinary times and matters may get even more interesting as we progress through 2009.