Opinion |

On Iran and China, Pakistan Still Needs A.Q. Khan, Nuclear Hero and Pariah

For decades, A.Q. Khan charmed civil and military leaders with his lies, just as he did when I met him. But his profiteering off proliferation, and Islamabad's dubious denials of his nuclear shenanigans, will fade away if Pakistan needs him to justify cozying up to China and Iran

Ayesha Siddiqa
Ayesha Siddiqa
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A poster on a fence in Lahore, Pakistan shows Pakistani nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan, glorified by many of his countrymen but reviled by Western governments
A poster on a fence in Lahore, Pakistan shows Pakistani nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan, remembered variously as a hero, pariah and charming liarCredit: AP Photo/K.M. Chaudary
Ayesha Siddiqa
Ayesha Siddiqa

In 2004, Pakistanis sat shocked in front of their television screens watching Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan in full confession mode: Admitting to illegally selling nuclear technology and know-how to Iran, Libya and North Korea. It was a double whammy for viewers: Here was a national hero, glorified as father of the country’s 'Islamic bomb,' and simultaneously the cause of deep national disrepute.

Yet when Khan died in September 2021, there was a forgiving, mournful atmosphere, not just because Khan’s nuclear proliferation sins were now a distant memory, but that the Pakistani state had failed to make an emotionally convincing case against the metallurgist.

The substantial evidence detailing Khan’s proliferation activity won’t dissuade the man on the street that he was a hero. This can be partly explained as a result of almost two decades of pro-Khan propaganda.

Abdul Qadeer Khan was only responsible for enriching uranium at his Kahuta research laboratories, while several other scientists worked silently but surely at the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) – but it was Khan’s name alone that would always be associated with the country’s non-conventional weapons program.

His achievement in clandestinely procuring the blueprint for the German-designed G-1 & G-2 centrifuges from his workplace at Almelo, Holland where he was employed from 1972 to 1975 cannot be ignored. Besides the blueprints, he also stole the contact details of suppliers for gas centrifuge equipment with whom Pakistan then linked up via the black market. By joining the PAEC, Abdul Qadeer changed the direction of Pakistan’s nuclear program, shifting its efforts from plutonium reprocessing to uranium enrichment.

Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan surrounded by policeman and lawyers after addressing a lawyers convention in Rawalpindi near IslamabadCredit: Faisal Mahmood/ REUTERS

All those years up until his exposure, he had charmed successive civil and military leaders, and ordinary people, with his lies. I myself met him four times, including two one-to-one meetings, the first in 1995 and the second in 1998, after Pakistan conducted its first ever public nuclear tests.

One had to be constantly guarded, in order not to be swept away by his conversation, in order to distinguish between facts, exaggerations and falsehoods.

He talked me through his contributions to Pakistan: he claimed that, besides uranium enrichment, he had invented the 'Ghauri' medium-range surface-to-surface ballistic missile. This was one of the many lies with which he hoodwinked the less well-informed, while winking at the policymakers who knew better but only cared about competing with Pakistan’s strategic rival, India.

From other sources in the defense industry, I learnt that he habitually passed off imported technology as his own. He was so absorbed in marketing himself that most scientists at the PAEC were relieved to see him humbled and ousted in 2004. I remember hearing about one specific ruckus at the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission when Khan presented the government with imported equipment which he passed off as his own, bypassing the native apparatus produced by PAEC’s own laser lab.

The Pakistani military, which was a partner with civilian scientists in setting up the nuclear weapons program, did not bother to curtail Khan’s shenanigans for at least a decade and a half, for several reasons.

Abdul Qadeer Khan (fifth from left) with other officials outside the iron-steel tunnel inside the Räs Koh Hills in 1998 just before Pakistan carried out its first public nuclear weapons test thereCredit: Wikipedia

Besides the oft-repeated fact that policymakers were too absorbed with competition with India, it took the national security establishment years to integrate into its thinking the reality of nuclear deterrence. While successive governments and the military desired nuclear technology, their strategic and tactical imagination still centered around conventional weapons. In the early 1990s, for instance, the Pakistan Air Force was anxious that chatter about the country’s nuclear proliferation would stymie its acquisition of American F-16s.

That meant the nuclear program proceeded with only the most primitive oversight. So no one really noticed when Abdul Qadeer siphoned off the funds meant to develop or acquire at least seven Ghauri missiles. Instead of the 20 missiles for which funds had been committed, there were only 13 missiles in Pakistan’s arsenal. An inquiry was opened in 1997. Though its results were never announced, the next government of Pervez Musharraf exposed Khan.

It seems that those stolen missile funds may have triggered a fresh investigation of Khan and subsequently the chasm between him and the military over his freelance nuclear mercenary business. That does not necessarily mean that some of the key decision-makers were not privy to his proliferation secret. But it is almost impossible in a country where the military tends to protect itself and cover up its own actions to conduct the research that would truly expose those responsible for partnering with Abdul Qadeer.

Compare the Khan situation to Osama bin Laden, who was located by the Americans in a Pakistani army cantonment in Abbottabad, despite Islamabad having repeatedly denied having any knowledge of the Al-Qaida leader’s whereabouts.

Supporters of the hardline pro-Taliban party Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Nazaryati protest in Quetta after the killing of Osama Bin Laden by U.S. Special Forces, May 2, 2011.Credit: AFP

The Americans would not, or could not, lay the blame on Pakistan’s military leadership, despite one of its senior retired generals, the former head of the prime intelligence agency, the Inter-Services-Intelligence (ISI), Lt. General Asad Durrani, stated there was a strong likelihood of senior generals' involvement in sheltering bin Laden.

Likewise, several books covering Abdul Qadeer’s nuclear trafficking refrain from pointing a finger at any general, the question remains if there really was any chance Khan operated totally on his own. The case for autonomy is weakened substantially by the frictionless access Khan enjoyed at the very highest and most sensitive levels of the policy and security agencies in Iran, Libya and North Korea.

It is clear that the deal with North Korea involved a technology swap that must have been approved at the highest levels in Pakistan. Passing on nuclear know-how to Iran may not have been a single man’s work either, as is evident from the recently published biography of former army chief of staff General Mirza Aslam Beg, "Compulsions of Power."

Beg, as the former head of the ISI, Lt. General Asad Durrani notes in his book "Pakistan Adrift," was responsible for giving the army its strategic direction and he believed in Pakistan adopting a stance of "strategic defiance" of the U.S., by diversifying strategic partnerships with other states in West Asia and Europe.

People light oil lamps in memory of Pakistan's nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan, in Karachi, Pakistan last monthCredit: AKHTAR SOOMRO/ REUTERS

Both Beg and A.Q. Khan believed in building a Muslim bloc that could challenge the U.S. and its policies in the Middle East. A leadership role for Pakistan in the Muslim world and ability to come to the aid of Muslims wherever they needed help including Palestine and Kashmir.

Those two army men imagined a warm relationship with Iran, like schoolboys think of their buddies, until disappointment emerged in the form of a stark divergence with Tehran on Afghanistan, followed by the disclosures that Pakistan was proliferating nuclear technology. The current Iran-Pakistan relations are based on tactical compromise, not on the kind of deep-rooted fraternal pact that Khan and Beg had fantasized about.

Perhaps the growing China-Iran relations will redefine Iran-Pakistan links too. In the event that relations between Islamabad and Tehran warm up substantially, midwifed by Beijing, Pakistan could find use for Abdul Qadeer Khan’s rhetoric glorifying a potent geopolitical "Islamic bloc," an issue he wrote about during his last years.

The Pakistani state may end up needing to comprehensively rehabilitate Abdul Qadeer Khan’s image and political rhetoric to justify that new strategic direction to ordinary folk at home.

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan speaks during a joint news conference with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani at the Presidential Palace in Kabul, Afghanistan.Credit: Rahmat Gul,AP

Ayesha Siddiqa is senior fellow at the Department of War Studies, King’s College, London. Twitter: @iamthedrifter

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