ISLAMABAD — The arrest of the alleged “dirty bomber” in the United States last month once again is a reminder of the dangers posed by unchecked dissemination of nuclear knowledge, especially when it is dropped into the hands of militant individuals. That Jose Padilla, alias Abdullah al-Muhajir, would go to the extent of seeking information on conventional bombs so that they could be packed with radioactive material demonstrates that there is no limit to how far terrorist groups are prepared to go.

Padilla’s arrest has once again drawn Pakistan into the limelight amid suggestions that he spent time in the South Asian country, making contact with members of the al-Qaeda group and seeking information on explosives. President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s military ruler, lives in difficult times.

Recently, at the peak of Pakistan’s military standoff with India, the Pakistani government’s suggestion that it was unwilling to give up the first nuclear-strike option, if faced with the danger of being overrun, prompted renewed concern over nuclear safety in South Asia. Until now, Pakistan had not figured in the controversy over whether nuclear programs in Russia and other countries were safely guarded.

As an investigation into Padilla’s Pakistani connections gets under way, Pakistan must prepare itself to face fresh questions over the security features of its nuclear program. With Pakistan’s largely unblemished track record — no evidence to date shows Pakistan as having exported nuclear knowhow or technology to a third country — Musharraf’s challenge in dealing with the nuclear-safety issue involves two issues.

On the one hand, the general needs to build a consensus on issues of nuclear development and use among nuclear powers that may well be at odds with the U.S.-led Western alliance. For Pakistan, demonstrating aggressively that its nuclear program has helped to avoid war with India could further justify its claim that it seeks a purely defensive and peaceful use of its weapons-grade materials.

Countries like Russia, to name the most obvious example, already cause Western concerns over what is said to be the largely unguarded nature of their programs. Pakistan’s active efforts to prove that its program is secure will move it closer to joining a global initiative aimed at eventually reaching a consensus against the use of nuclear weapons.

Moreover, Pakistan needs to expand its nuclear security dialogue with other nonnuclear countries to gain their understanding of its immediate security environment. Perhaps Pakistan’s expanding contacts with the international community could, in time, move it toward nondiscriminatory global instruments for ensuring the peaceful use of nuclear energy.

On the other hand, Pakistan faces a number of internal contradictions, triggered by its weak political and economic systems. To make matters worse, the recent military standoff with India ended in what many in Pakistan might have viewed as an unpalatable decision — namely, to give up support for separatists in Indian-administered Kashmir, described by Pakistan as freedom fighters.

As a consequence, Pakistan must be prepared for a backlash from Islamic hardliners upset over the recent policy turnaround. Musharraf must move fast in returning to genuinely democratic ways. He has promised national elections this October, although concerns linger over how free and fair they will be.

Just as vital for the future of Pakistan as establishing the foundations of a democratic order is a package of tough economic reforms that will encourage investment in the country. So far, businessmen have remained reluctant to invest, largely because of fears of the tension with India as well as internal security conditions. An out-of-date bureaucracy has held up the pace of the reform.

Managing the fallout from the Padilla case may well be Pakistan’s next challenge. By his actions, Musharraf has the opportunity to give Pakistan the chance for a new beginning following years of economic and political malaise, and increasing activism by militants.

It is only in the interest of Pakistan’s conservative hardliners to see aggressive reforms fail so that they can keep the pot boiling with conflict between Pakistan and the surrounding region. To their disadvantage, though, Pakistan has never before been so central to global interests as it is today — a consequence of Musharraf’s decision to support the U.S. war on terrorism.

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