Confronting the Conspiratorial

1 Mar

I never imagined when I started this Ph.D that would have to confront conspiracy theory as part of the project. Just goes to show how much I know. Not that my topic area involves any of the big conspiracy theories: the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the Kennedy assassination, or allegedly faked moon landings to name but three of the most widespread and popular.

The condensed version of the theory that impinges on my research goes like this: Western governments (mainly the U.S. and to a lesser extent the UK) willfully looked the other way when it came to the Pakistani nuclear programme and in some cases actively encouraged nuclear proliferation amongst states that would become (or were) enemies of those self same Western nations.

Like all conspiracy theories, there is a logical problem at the heart of the basic proposition: why would America and Britain encourage nuclear proliferation amongst their enemies? Allowing the spread of nukes is fundamentally not the same as, for example, clandestinely supplying arms to anti-Soviet groupings (such as the Mujahideen in Afghanistan) or selling conventional weapons to an admitted enemy (as in the Iran-Contra Affair.)(1) No, nuclear weapons are politically, culturally, and psychologically a breed apart.

This theory on the Pakistani programme came to widespread prominence in 2000/2001 when U.S. and UK intelligence agencies moved in on the proliferation network set up by Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan. Nobody disputes that Khan, having stolen documents and blueprints from the URENCO concern in the Netherlands in 1975, made his way back to Pakistan and convinced Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (the Prime Minister of Pakistan) that uranium enrichment was the route to a bomb. Khan then went on not only to be a key figure in developing the Pakistani nuclear arsenal, but also in selling nuclear technology to certain other states (for example, Libya and North Korea.) That part of the story is certainly not under dispute.

Several books on the topic have come out since then, most notably Deception: Pakistan, the United States and the Global Nuclear Weapons Conspiracy by Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clarke; The Nuclear Jihadist (also known as The Man From Pakistan) by Douglas Frantz and Catherine Collins; and, America and the Islamic Bomb: The Deadly Compromise by David Armstrong and Joseph Trento.(2)

Exaggeration, it has been said, is the lifeblood of conspiracy theory. What all of the above books do is exaggerate, and exaggerate extensively. The notion that a continuum of thinking existed across the Carter, Reagan, Bush, and Clinton administrations is faintly ludicrous. The notion of deliberate, large scale arming of known (or prospective) enemies with the potential for nuclear capability even more so.

That being said, there are elements of these books which are correct and historically accurate, but they are subsumed under a (to borrow a phrase) conspiracy so immense as to dominate their various narratives. I must emphasise here that I am primarily concerned with the 1970s portion of all of these volumes, as that is where my expertise and current research interests lie. The sources used are also questionable: disaffected CIA agents, dodgy arms dealers, and government officials with their own skins to preserve. Furthermore, they all draw on The Islamic Bomb by Steve Weissman and Herbert Krosney, a book from 1981 that is openly and systematically biased against its subjects, as their main source of information on the Carter administration period. Which, coincidentally, is exactly the period I’m examining in my thesis.

None of these books, it must be said, are wholly wrong. Indeed, taken together and read with a degree of skepticism, they tell an interesting story about international intrigue and subterfuge. What they get wrong is equating  blindess with deliberately looking the other way, incompetence for Machiavellian machinations, and heavily contextual geopolitical contingencies with sinister plans for a nuclear world.


(1): The notion that it was CIA arming of the mujahideen that eventually led to the situation which we find ourselves in today is slightly misleading. That has more to do with post-pullout Soviet attitudes, intransigence on all sides, and continued CIA interference in the domestic politics of Afghanistan, all of which scuppered the best chances for peace in that unfortunate country.

(2): The title of The Nuclear Jihadist had to be changed when it was pointed out that Khan was many things, but a jihadist he was not.

One Response to “Confronting the Conspiratorial”


  1. Confronting the Conspiratorial II: Return of the Conspirator! « theatomicage -

    […] one of the nuttiest conspiracy theories I’ve yet come across (something that I’ve discussed before.) Given that most of said theories are pretty nutty, you have to be really reaching to raise more […]

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