For millions of Pakistanis it was shocking to see the country's top nuclear scientist on national television Wednesday apologizing for selling nuclear secrets to Libya, Iran, and North Korea, and exonerating their country's political and military leadership. Thursday, Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf granted Abdul Qadeer Khan clemency for his "unauthorized proliferation."
Throughout the past three decades, the "Father of the Islamic bomb" has appeared on Pakistani TV screens receiving medals and honors. His public mea culpa this week is seen by many here as an effort - privately endorsed by Washington - to protect Mr. Musharraf, a key ally in the war on terrorism.
"Dr. A.Q. Khan has been made a scapegoat for the people behind the scene. Everything was controlled by the generals and not the scientists," says Hisam-ul Haq, the brother of one of Khan's aides who is now in custody.
The prevailing view is that the US is willing to accept Khan's explanation, plus the dismantling of his global nuclear merchandising network, because it's preparing to launch an offensive against Al Qaeda and Taliban elements along the Afghan border, say US and Pakistan officials, in hopes of capturing Osama bin Laden. If Musharraf's government were to be connected to Khan's nuclear deals, the US might be forced under existing nonproliferation law to impose sanctions on Pakistan at a moment when it most needs the South Asian nation's help.
"The Bush administration does not want to put further pressure for conducting a very open investigation because Musharraf and the Pakistani army is a key ally, and it does not want to lose its ally," says Aisha Siddiqua, a defense analyst in Islamabad.
A Pakistani official in Washington confirms that the coming "spring offensive" against Al Qaeda redoubts is now the priority and neither country wanted the Khan revelations to trouble pursuit of counter terrorist actions.
Those close to the Pakistani position say that it was recent decisions by recipient countries of Pakistan's nuclear know-how and building blocks - specifically Libya and Iran - to open up to the US and the international community about their nuclear programs that forced the Pakistani government to act now.
As one Pakistani-American close to the embassy in Washington says, "They knew the origin of some of this technology was going to come out with the Americans in Libya and Iran opening its doors as well, so they had to formulate some explanation. But it had to be done," he adds, "in a way that it wouldn't damage relations."
Even so, Western diplomats suggest that the matter will not be considered finished, and that some have serious questions about past contacts between Al Qaeda and Khan and his associates.
Of particular concern are allegations that Khan or his subordinates may have advised Al Qaeda members in the city of Kandahar, Afghanistan, on how to construct a "dirty bomb." Such a bomb, using conventional explosives to disperse radioactive material in densely populated areas, would be far short of a weapon of mass destruction, but it could cause numerous casualties and financial damage nonetheless.
"This would be a very attractive weapons for Al Qaeda, because it is simple, it denies their enemy the use of a high-value installation or a piece of property, and it causes extreme economic damage," says the Western diplomat, privately. "As a physical threat, dirty bombs are somewhat overstated. If one of these is released in a crowd, some people may receive levels of radiation that cause them fatal injury. Others may be affected with chronic severe health problems, while others are not affected at all. This is not a weapon of mass destruction. This is a nuisance weapon."
But some analysts say that Musharraf's problems aren't over, even with Khan's public confession and pardon. He has to convince people of Pakistan that he had little choice when faced with strong evidence from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and from Iran and Libya themselves.
"He has to deal with domestic and international pressures. He needs to assure the world that now Pakistan's nuclear command and control is in safe hands and to convince Pakistanis that the nuclear program will remain intact in the future," says Pakistani political analyst, Tauseef Ahmed. "If he fails to convince both the international community and the people of Pakistan, then the nuclear saga will keep on haunting him and Islamabad."
Farhatullah Babar, a leader of the main opposition, Pakistan Peoples' Party (PPP), says "It will not bring an end the matter and more questions will be asked than have been answered in the confessional statement. The question which the people would ask is that even if Dr. Khan transferred nuclear technology on his own, what were the security people and intelligence agencies doing."
According to a Pakistani official close to the investigation, Khan told investigators that two former heads of military, Gen. Mirza Aslam Beg and Gen. Jehangir Karamat, had authorized the sale of nuclear technology to Iran, Libya and North Korea. Mr. Beg, who remained the chief of the Army from 1988 to 1991, reportedly suggested to the then prime minister, Nazwaz Sharif, that Tehran was willing to pay a heavy amount to Islamabad for nuclear help. Beg denies the allegations as a "pack of lies."
But observers in Pakistan accept that the military didn't have knowledge of Khan's activities. "Since the nuclear program was under direct control of Army, they [the army chiefs] must have knowledge of any transfer of nuclear technology took place during the last 15 years," says Ms. Siddiqua, a defense analyst.
Khan's televised appearance Wednesday was his first public statement since the probe was initiated against Pakistan's nuclear scientists two months ago. He seemed apologetic and embarrassed.
"It pains me to realize in retrospect that my entire lifetime achievements of providing foolproof national security to my nation could have been placed in serious jeopardy on account of my activities which were based in good faith but on errors of judgment related to unauthorized proliferation," Khan said on Pakistan's state-controlled television. "I also wish to clarify that there was never any kind of authorization for these activities by a government official," he says.
Musharraf announced the pardon of Khan Thursday, saying that the nuclear proliferation was done directly under the scientist's supervision. "It was greed of money, obviously. That is reality."
"The chiefs of the Army were aware of the development of the program but were not involved in proliferation. We questioned Jehnagir Karamat and Mirza Aslam Baig, but no evidence was found against them," Musharraf said. He said that no military or other government official involved. "There was thorough investigation and whosoever would have been involved, we would have taken him to task."
Musharraf said that Pakistan will not allow the UN to inspect its nuclear program. "We will cooperate with UN atomic agency, the IAEA, but will not hand over any documents," he said, "If the IAEA wanted to come to Pakistan and discuss the results of Pakistan's investigation, by all means, we are open." But he added, "This is a sovereign country.... This country will never roll back its nuclear assets and its missile program. This can never be done. This is my promise.
• Staff writer Scott Baldauf contributed to this story from New Delhi, India, and staff writer Howard LaFranchi contributed from Washington.