Another round of nuclear espionage exposes the widening rifts in the alliance between Pakistan and the United States.

Nadeem Akhtar, a 45-year-old Pakistani American living in Maryland, has been indicted for smuggling “restricted nuclear material” to Pakistan. According to the indictment, Mr Akhtar, along with an unnamed accomplice, has been smuggling sensitive material to Pakistan since 2005, falsifying end-user certificates and other documents to mask the final destination.

The equipment he is accused of smuggling includes radiation-detection devices, calibration equipment and nuclear-grade resins that can be used “directly or indirectly in activities related to nuclear reactors and the processing and production of nuclear related materials”, according to prosecutors.

What might be more important than the actual technology that was smuggled out of the United States is the possible consequences for bilateral relations. Already strained by drone strikes and diplomatic squabbles, the relations between Washington and Islamabad are growing more and more difficult to pretend are friendly.

Needless to say, this is not the first instance of Pakistan being accused of nuclear weapons related smuggling or proliferation. A Q Khan remains the chief villain in most accounts of nuclear smuggling. Once a hero of Pakistan’s nuclear programme, there is strong evidence that Dr Khan assisted North Korea, Libya, Iraq and even Iran to develop weapons programmes before he was sacked from his post as science and technology adviser in 2004.

There is some dispute about Dr Khan’s role in Pakistan’s nuclear programme, and whether he deserves the credit he receives for the country’s nuclear capability; similarly, his role in proliferation may be overestimated. It was Pakistan’s military leaders that oversaw relations with North Korea and Iran, which both received nuclear know-how.

Regardless, the Khan network casts a shadow over the recent affair but does not seem to be directly involved. Mr Akhtar has been accused of smuggling materials out of the United States, and Americans were only peripherally involved in the earlier operation. Considering the questions raised by senior officials in the US administration regarding the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and arms related equipment, the fact that Mr Akhtar was charged after allegedly smuggling material for six years does not speak too well of the US intelligence apparatus.

There is another obvious question raised by the timing of the disclosure. Mr Akhtar’s indictment occurred within a fortnight of the indictment in Pakistan of Raymond Davis, a US citizen accused of murdering two Pakistani intelligence agents in Lahore. The US insisted that Mr Davis had diplomatic immunity, leading to a major diplomatic incident before Mr Davis was released after paying blood money to the families of the two men who were shot.

There has been a hot debate in the drawing rooms of Pakistani households whether the two incidents might be connected. There is, however, one irrefutable argument against a connection. Mr Davis’s release will most certainly not have any effect on the charges against Mr Akhtar. Nor does Pakistan seek Mr Akhtar’s repatriation.

Consequently, it is fairly safe to assume that there is a case against Mr Akhtar that does not depend upon the vagaries of diplomacy. It would not be the first time that US defences were penetrated; it took years before US intelligence services realised that China’s nuclear programme was borrowing from the US.

In this case, US prosecutors allege that Mr Akhtar’s efforts were intended for the Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission and the Chashma Nuclear Power Plant – both of which are banned from receiving certain items from the US for national security reasons. This is certainly a distinct possibility. Since the Khan network dried up, Pakistan has been dependent on US technology in some cases, despite Chinese assistance.

Last December, the US imposed fines on a Chinese company, PPG Industries, for supplying similar material to the same Pakistani plant in Chashma.

However well hidden, there must be serious discomfiture being felt in Washington’s halls of power – a discomfiture that would certainly not be shared in Islamabad. If Mr Akhtar has been smuggling items for six years as is charged, one has to assume that Pakistan’s needs have already been met. Moreover, Pakistan is notoriously good at reverse engineering and quite likely has added to its own technological capability.

It is another in a series of meltdowns of bilateral relations between the two strategic allies. However, in the full scope of the relationship and its many problems, it is too soon to say if there will be serious consequences.

Meanwhile, if found guilty, Mr Akhtar may be handed a sentence of up to 20 years. He is accused of having received between 5 to 7.5 per cent of the money spent to smuggle the materials out of the country; if true, it would appear that his actions were motivated by mercenary instincts rather than loyalty to Pakistan.

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