August Issue 2008
Pakistan’s Dr Strangelove
Just when we thought that the great Pakistani hero had been sufficiently humiliated publicly a few years ago and buried alive, he seems to have sprung up again. Dr A.Q. Khan is the proverbial genie who cannot be put back into the bottle. His recent claim is that he had nothing to do with the secret proliferation and there are ‘others’ who were responsible for the deed. Such claims are extremely embarrassing for the nuclear bureaucracy of the country, namely the Strategic Plans Division (SPD) and its boss, Lt. General Khalid Kidwai.
If the Pakistani nuclear bureaucracy had their way, they would like to see Khan disappear forever. After all, he was part of the international network that proliferated nuclear technology and know-how. The Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) and the SPD have made consistent efforts to even downplay the role Khan played in building the country’s uranium enrichment facility at Kahuta. Their claim is that he had an insignificant role in the entire programme and was just responsible for providing enriched uranium while other scientists did the real work. Then, there are other claims, according to which Khan cannot be held responsible for proliferation as the nuclear programme was under the strict control of the civilian leadership during the 1970s and later the military government. In a recent television programme, Pakistan People’s Party’s Farhatullah Babur and the former foreign secretary, Tanveer Ahmed Khan, claimed that Khan did not have the kind of financial freedom which might have led to alleged corruption and that the former president Ghulam Ishaq Khan was part of the team that supervised financial transactions. The question then is: where does the truth lie?
Hopefully the history of the nuclear programme, which the SPD has commissioned to be written by some of its former members, in collaboration with a former member of the US State Department-turned-academic, might reveal more information than that which is available. However, one wonders how the aforementioned history project will deal with the issue of A.Q. Khan’s critical involvement in the programme.
For years, what was available to a researcher was a book by a Pakistani journalist on A.Q. Khan’s life, which, as the rumour goes, was commissioned by the scientist himself. The book eulogised Khan’s role as the maker of the Pakistani nuclear weapon. This draft was never challenged by any segment of the government. In fact, during the 1970s and the 1980s, A.Q.Khan played a critical role as Islamabad’s fall guy, who got the blame and attention, while others at the PAEC were involved with the larger development work. His interview with the Indian journalist Kuldip Nayyar during the early 1980s was stage-managed at a critical time in India-Pakistan bilateral relations to send a signal to Delhi that Pakistan was fully prepared for its defence.
Other available information indicates that Khan had personally contacted Z.A. Bhutto and later met officials from Pakistan who were keen to hire his services. While in Holland, Khan worked at a uranium enrichment plant at URENCO from 1972-75, where he was responsible for translating documents. There he attempted to get more information on the centrifuge design and contacts in the nuclear technology market, which he tapped later to build Pakistan’s uranium enrichment capability. In a letter written to Bhutto in 1974, Khan expressed his willingness to work for Pakistan, where he subsequently shifted during the 1970s.
A.Q. Khan’s rise to stardom, however, wasn’t easy. Allegedly, there was friction within the nuclear establishment which he resolved through pleading to Bhutto for greater independence. Thus, Khan Research Laboratories was established to give Khan independence from other members of the nuclear bureaucracy, especially Muneer Ahmed Khan, who headed the organisation then. The nature of their relations were revealed in the book mentioned earlier, which makes a point of completely trashing Muneer Khan.
Despite Tanveer Ahmed Khan’s claim that A.Q. Khan didn’t have financial independence and could not write ‘blank cheques,’ the fact is that the uranium-enrichment programme depended almost entirely on the black market. There was no way that Pakistan’s embassies and high commissions could confirm the actual price of materials that were being procured through clandestine sources from abroad. For instance, the maragging required for making rods to stabilise the temperature in the reactor was bought from China at a much higher rate. Interestingly, Khan, who was basically a metallurgist, did not develop the capability to make this steel in Pakistan or encourage other metallurgists. I remember attending a conference at Heavy Industries in Taxila on tank technology, in which A.Q. Khan pointedly discouraged another metallurgist from presenting a paper.
There are other stories as well which indicate that A.Q. Khan tended to create his own empire. Although Khan Research Laboratories’ fundamental mandate was to enrich uranium, it got involved in making shoulder-fired missiles and other military products as well. During an interview with the writer in 1994, A.Q. Khan claimed that he had trained a team of 1,200 scientists and engineers. Despite these claims, his ‘company’ could not make the Ghauri missile for which Khan sought help and cooperation from North Korea. The Ghauri missile is based on the North Korean Non Dong missile technology as is the Iranian Shahaab missile. Perhaps, both countries had sought North Korean help at the same time or maybe Khan was instrumental in Korean technology transfer to both countries as he was also linked with transferring some know-how to Iran.
However, it is equally unfair to blame Khan for all the wrongdoings. The Pakistani state cannot shed its responsibility or involvement in proliferation. There are two ways that Islamabad can be held responsible for this. First, the Pakistani government must own up to its lack of responsibility in not keeping an eye on what Khan was up to. It is an open secret that Khan had acquired a lot of wealth during his involvement with the programme. Not only that, his relatives and those who became connected with him through the marriage of his daughters also amassed a lot of wealth. However, the only questions ever raised were regarding the accounting of Ghauri missiles. Apparently, there were fewer missiles in the inventory than what had been paid for. Not only Khan, but there were many others who made a lot of wealth. Ambitious officers from defence research and development and production institutions were keen to go to Kahuta as it was a haven for minting money, with little accountability. Sources claim that Khan had a way of bribing senior military officers, including service chiefs, by getting things done for them.
Khan had obviously benefited from the ignorance of the higher management of the nuclear programme and the defence bureaucracy regarding the details of deterrence. What is the truth behind the Pakistan Air Force aircraft which was seen parked in North Korea? Although Khan blamed it entirely on Musharraf, the fact is that the international nuclear proliferation had taken place during the 1990s. Incidentally, no one seems to bother to question former army chiefs, starting from Mirza Aslam Beg to Jahangir Karamat.
General Beg, in particular, thought in terms of ‘strategic defiance’ of the US. A paper titled: ‘Gulf Crisis 1990,’ which is supposedly the brainchild of Beg and his coterie of generals, reveals the thinking of the army leadership then. The emphasis was on building links with other states, especially developing a Muslim bloc led by Pakistan. Technology transfer, perhaps, was one of the important dimensions of this strategy.
Numerous analysts view the Pakistani state’s obsession with an Islamic identity as a pragmatic policy which became popular during Zia-ul-Haq’s reign. However, this is an ideology which seems to have haunted the country for a long time and could have been the source of proliferation to Iran and Libya. There are many who believe that A.Q. Khan, if he was indeed alone in his proliferation venture, was moved by the desire to strengthen the Muslim world. When did this thinking begin to change? Did it happen after Pakistan’s recent strategic alignment with the US? These are some of the questions which call for a deeper inquiry.
The lack of sensitivity to proliferation and the dearth of knowledge on deterrence was also obvious in the manner in which the various strategic institutions used to market their products and technologies. Why was it that before the Khan story broke out, most strategic institutions, including Khan Research Labs and National Defence Complex, were encouraged to develop independent marketing wings, with emphasis on raising money?
In the end, what brought A.Q. Khan down was not just American pressure but the fissures inside the nuclear establishment. Other prominent scientists, especially Dr Samar Mubarikmand, who headed the National Defence Complex and was one of the significant players in the nuclear bureaucracy, were peeved by the manner in which Khan took credit for the work which others did. In fact, the NDC and PAEC were responsible for the nuclear tests of 1998 in which Khan’s only contribution was the enriched uranium provided by Khan Research Laboratories.
A.Q. Khan, at best, represents a chapter in the history of Pakistan’s nuclear development — a period marked by little accountability. This is not to suggest that there is greater accountability now, but the programme is not being showcased as it used to be. Today, the Strategic Plans Division has taken the overall responsibility of managing the programme. But the question is: Is there any one organisation keeping an eye on these managers of the nuclear programme? A greater accountability is necessary for Pakistan to rebuild its reputation as a responsible state.
The writer is an independent social scientist and author of Military Inc. She tweets @iamthedrifter