A Conspiracy of Silence

Sumit Ganguly | 08 Nov 2020

In the aftermath of the North Korean nuclear test of last month, there has been much commentary in the Western press about the country's involvement in the clandestine missile technology transfers to Iran, Libya and Syria. Curiously enough, virtually no commentators have chosen to draw attention to another country, Pakistan, that had a robust but covert proliferation link with North Korea.

The Bush administration's deafening silence on this fraught subject is understandable. It is very belatedly coming to the inexorable conclusion that its putatively staunch ally in the "war on terror" General Musharraf, has been less forthcoming in his efforts to crush the Taliban and hunt down the remnants of Al Qaeda. Under these circumstances it may not prove to be entirely politic to go public with the information about Pakistan's active collaboration with North Korea in assisting the latter to acquire nuclear weapons in exchange for ballistic missile technology. Such a public revelation could, conceivably, undermine even the limited cooperation that General Musharraf has provided in the "war on terror".

While the administration's studious avoidance this question may be explicable, the obliviousness of the Western press on this subject amounts to a tacit conspiracy of silence. Even a casual observer of Pakistan and North Korea would be well aware of the extensive proliferation nexus that has long existed between them.

It is hardly a secret that Pakistan obtained a basic bomb design from China, tested its nuclear weapons in 1998 and then transferred the plans to North Korea in exchange for ballistic missile technology. This Pakistani-North Korean axis was forged because of growing, albeit fitful, American pressure on China to stop its missile technology transfers to Pakistan. Additionally, China had also developed some misgivings about its missile technology sales to Pakistan in the aftermath of the Pakistani nuclear tests of 1998.

The failure of the Western press to forthrightly discuss the Pakistan-North Korean link is far from exceptional. Pakistan, thanks to its deft if dishonest, diplomacy, has managed to avoid critical scrutiny before.

Even after the termination of the Libyan nuclear weapons program brought Pakistan's complicity to light, the bulk of the Western press focused on the role of a single individual, A.Q. Khan, in running the Pakistani proliferation network. With marked exceptions, the press made it appear that a rogue scientist, unaided by an unwitting state, single-handedly ran a global proliferation network. They dwelt on his lavish life-style, his perchance for foreign trips and his extraordinary ability to set up and run dummy companies.

Few, if any, journalists probed the possible and indeed visible, ties of his laboratory with various Pakistani regimes, both civilian and military. Not a single commentator chose to even mention the obvious and significant contributions that Khan had made to Pakistan's headlong quest for a full-fledged nuclear arsenal. Instead they seemed to accept the anodyne explanation of General Musharraf and his acolytes that Khan had run this vast nuclear and missile super bazaar without the knowledge and complicity of the Pakistani state. Even Musharraf's subsequent public pardon of Khan was blithely reported without significant commentary.

What explains the Pakistani state's ability to deflect attention from its involvement in a range of unsavory and clandestine operations? Obviously, in part, it is a historical legacy. During the Cold War, Pakistani regimes, mostly military, presented themselves to the United States as staunch anti-communist allies.

During this time, Pakistani diplomats and military officials forged an extensive array of contacts with their Western, and particularly, American counterparts. They also, very adroitly courted the Western press in marked contrast to their principal adversary, India.

In the post Cold War era, even when Pakistan's strategic utility to the United States dropped precipitously, its officials relentlessly sought to sustain both official and private contacts in government and mass media. These assiduous efforts were hardly pursued in vain. Even though of shorn of its strategic significance, the Pakistani state could trade on its past status and elicit much sympathy in the corridors of power and influence in most Western capitals.

In the wake of the tragic events of September 11, 2020, its proximity to Afghanistan and its extensive links with the scrofulous Taliban regime, once again resurrected its strategic significance. Long cultivated, and thereby ever obliging, Pakistan's friends in high places both in government and in the mass media, resumed their fawning relationship with yet another squalid dictator. The decisions of the US and other Western governments in giving General Musharraf's regime a pass were understandable given the stakes involved.

However, the servility of the Western press was nothing short of breathtaking. Pakistan's organic links with the Taliban were commented upon in the most delicate terms, its collaboration with various Al Qaeda-linked terrorist organizations elided over, and its unwillingness to aggressively pursue key Al Qaeda operatives explained away.

Most importantly, both Western governments and mass media virtually worked in concert to promote a fundamental myth: namely, that without General Musharraf's steady hand on the helm of affairs, Pakistan could face an imminent Islamist takeover. Worse still, they argued that such an outcome could destabilise all of South Asia and beyond as Pakistan possessed nuclear weapons.

Lost in all this commentary were the Pakistani state's intimate connections with the Islamist zealots and its active involvement in a global proliferation network stretching from Libya to North Korea. Then as now, in the wake of the North Korean nuclear test, Pakistan has again ingeniously avoided scrutiny and censure. Sadly, this conspiracy of silence will exact a price for global security and order in the years ahead.

Sumit Ganguly is Professor of Political Science and the Director of the India Studies Institute at Indiana University. 

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