To no one’s great surprise, Abdul Qadeer Khan walked free yesterday.  A Pakistani court ordered his release from five years of house arrest, signaling the final collapse of the effort to bring the worst nuclear proliferation ring in history to justice.  However, Khan himself may have been more of a patsy than a villain:

Early yesterday, the Pakistani scientist at the center of one of history’s worst nuclear scandals walked out of his Islamabad villa to declare his vindication after five years of house arrest. “The judgment, by the grace of God, is good,” a smiling Abdul Qadeer Khan told a throng of reporters and TV crews.

Moments earlier, a Pakistani court had ordered the release of the metallurgist who had famously admitted selling nuclear secrets to Iran, Libya and North Korea. Through years of legal limbo, Khan, 72, had never been charged, and now he never will be. “The so-called A.Q. Khan affair is a closed chapter,” a Pakistani government spokesman said.

In Washington, the news sparked criticism but little surprise. It was a jarring denouement to what had been one of the most celebrated successes against nuclear weapons trafficking in decades — a victory that has been increasingly tarnished by government failures in the aftermath of the ring’s breakup.

Nearly five years after Khan’s smuggling operation came to light, the international effort to prosecute its leaders is largely in shambles, yielding convictions of only a few minor participants and no significant prison time for any of them.

Khan may be the face of the network, but the real force behind it was the government of Pakistan.  They wanted to proliferate their technology to fellow Islamists in the 1980s and 1990s, and Khan helped them do it.  Later, after 9/11, Islamabad wanted to pretend that it had nothing to do with Khan’s efforts and made him the fall guy for their efforts.

That doesn’t relieve Khan of his responsibility in proliferation, of course, but it might explain why a Pakistani court would free their national hero.  Unfortunately, it removes what little pressure remained for Khan to cooperate with outside investigators.  His silence over the years got rewarded by Pakistan, which also kept him away from US and UN investigators, and he’s not about to name names now that he’s been freed.

For five years, international agencies have tried to hold proliferators accountable for their actions in providing nuclear designs and materials to lunatics and tyrants.  That effort failed long before Khan got his freedom, and it points out the folly of treating Khan and his conspirators like criminals instead of enemies — especially when they enjoy government sponsorship.  Perhaps this will be a lesson in dealing with Hamas, Hezbollah, and other government-sponsored terrorist networks.