AQ Khan: the sinner and the saint

We are so eager to turn our heroes into saints that we shy away from making them accountable and soon push them towards becoming sinners, writes Dr Ayesha Siddiqa

Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan, the man who was the face of Pakistan’s bomb for at least a couple of decades, is no more. While he seems to have become the talk of the country after his death, it also reminds us of days when his presence was felt around the capital city Islamabad for more than just making the bomb. He was part of Pakistan’s rent-seeking elite, who milked resources as payment for contributing significantly to making the nuclear program. Pakistan’s ordinary people, however, are likely to forgive him despite knowing about his a bsins of extortion for giving to the country at least more than other national looters do: nuclear teeth to the state which will always be far more useful to the powerful than the unprivileged.

I was reminded of him every time I walked through the lush and posh E-7 sector of Islamabad. 2018 was the last time when I walked there – and it was not the time that one could any longer see him leave his house. I would go to E-7 to walk my dog as it was a perfect neighbourhood for this kind of activity: green, serene and super-secure – a least partly because Dr. Khan lived there, guarded round the clock. He was one of the most important men in town, and so, when he became bit of a pariah, he had to be secured from himself and from foreign agencies that, it was feared, may whisk him away. Since he moved into the sector, no one lived in the house immediately next to his, due to his security.

The house in E-7 is also where I had met him for a formal interview related with my doctoral work that later became my first book on Pakistan’s arms procurement decision-making. He was all charm and I was scared. He had the capacity to disarm you completely. As I walked in and introduced myself, he very gently reminded me that his daughter was also called Ayesha. For me, it was difficult to be not on my guard as I could not shed the thought of what had happened to Mushahid Hussain Syed in 1984 after he took the Indian journalist Kuldeep Nayyar to the E-7 house for an interview. He lost his job as editor of the newspaper The Muslim for exposing the maker of the bomb to an Indian. I remember telling Muhammad Yusuf, the proprietor of Mr. Books, who had organized the interview for me – another famous man of Islamabad who cannot be forgotten – that I was too small a fry to be baked on some strategic oven. It was a naïve comment as I had gone to see Dr. Khan at a different moment and with different intentions: and certainly not comparable to the charming Mushahid Hussain, who, even in 1984, carried a different burden on his shoulders.

The idea was to publish the interview immediately & start a debate about not miscalculating Pakistan’s power. The Zia government, on the other hand, played its hand at narrative building and made the interview look genuine by ensuring that Syed lost his job

The 1980s was a tense decade for India-Pakistan relations. From the India-Pakistan contest over the Siachen glacier to the rumour of a possible Indian targeting of Pakistan’s nuclear program along the lines of the Israeli attack in 1981 on the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osiraq to the Brass-tacks exercise by India, Islamabad was constantly in the need for doing strategic signaling. Dr. Khan’s interview with Nayyar was arranged to convey the message across the border that Pakistan had nuclear capability and so New Delhi must think several times before embarking on an adventure. Nayyar briefed the authorities across the border and sat on the interview for longer than what the Zia regime expected. The idea was for the interview to publish immediately and start a debate about not miscalculating Pakistan’s power. The Zia government, on the other hand, played its hand at narrative building and made the interview look genuine by ensuring that Syed lost his job.

My time for visiting Dr. Khan was different from Nayyar’s. The early 1990s was the Aslam Beg era, despite that the general had lost his battle for an extension and retired in 1991. He was no longer the army chief but his legacy of openness – a la Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika – allowed young scholars like myself to probe into military affairs that could not have been imagined under Zia-ul-Haq. In any case, Dr. Qadeer Khan probably saw me as this young woman who was not worth targeting but could be impressed by stories of his personal achievements. I was not there to ask him about the nuclear program but about his contribution to the country’s defence industry. He sat there telling me about how he had produced approximately 1,200 scientists and engineers. However, during my six months of rigorous fieldwork, every defense R&D and production unit I went to complained about lack of qualified manpower. Khan’s huge empire of Kahuta Research Laboratories that was later renamed Khan Research Laboratories was built on his main prowess – having the knowhow to acquire technology from various countries and putting a program together instead of doing R&D or any kind of organically-done production. Lt. General (retd) Talat Masood, who served as Chairman Pakistan Ordnance Factories (POF), Wah, and later Secretary Defense production, who I had also interviewed for my work, would tell me stories of how Khan would buy things off the shelf and present it to civil and military leaders as his own hard work. While the Pakistan Atomic Energy Comission (PAEC) scientific team sweated to produce indigenous laser equipment, Khan presented an assembled kit to the government as his own. He was so good at this act that people often forgot that he was never a nuclear scientist but a metallurgist, who should have researched on producing maraging steel required to bring down temperature in a nuclear reactor. Instead, Khan would get it from China.

The Chinese operate the largest distantwater fishing fleet in the world. It is estimated to be 1,600­ 3,400 ships in size, many so large that their weekly catch could be equal to what local ships might catch in a year

Dr A.Q. Khan with members of the public in 2017

But successive governments in Islamabad were quite happy to buy into his story, at least as long as money flowed from the US and the Middle East, especially during the 1980s and even later. In the decade of the 1980s and the 1990s, defense industrial production was never the country’s real strength. I remember complaining to Lt. General Furrukh Khan, who was the army’s Chief of General Staff (CGS) in 1994, about duplication of activities causing waste and hurting defense industrialisation. He acknowledged the problem and I left the meeting fairly satisfied that I had done my national duty of informing a senior officer and that he was already conscious of the issue. Many years later the problem remains. Thus, Dr. Qadeer, like everyone else, built his own empire.

My biggest disappointment, however, relates to two different events in which I heard Dr. Khan speak. The first time that I ever saw the gent was during the first international seminar on tank technology held at Heavy Industries, Taxila. Khan had no kind words at all for another very enthusiastic metallurgist from a local organisation, who was brimming with excitement, talking about discovery by his institution of the metal that would allow Pakistan to manufacture steel needed for producing tanks indigenously. Khan was subtly critical and even discouraging.

Many years later in 1999, I heard Abdul Qadeer Khan address young women at the Fatima Jinnah Women’s University in Rawalpindi. He stood there talking about his achievements and how his pay-cheque was peanuts. I found it depressing to see the father of the bomb complain so bitterly about the state when he had been catapulted to the top of the social ladder. It was a known secret that there wasn’t a single sector in Islamabad where Dr. Khan did not have a plot. He was one of the first ones to exploit the village in Bani Gala. He had built a farmhouse along the lake where he would go regularly to feed monkeys. Not only him: his larger family were beneficiaries of his position. The state was generous in rewarding Khan by allowing him to feast like the rest of the ruling elite and pick on prime real estate around the country. After all, he had a crucial role in expediting the process of producing weapons-grade enriched uranium. He connected state-sponsored smugglers like Seth Abid to sources in Europe from where the latter could acquire components to build early-generation German centrifuges using the black market. Given that India had carried out it first atomic tests in 1974, Pakistan made a choice of not depending entirely on indigenous R&D, but instead to get things off the shelf.

Pakistan's nuclear­capable Shaheen­II long range missile at a militay parade

Abdul Qadeer Khan was useful in two ways. First, procuring a blueprint for building a uranium enrichment plant. He had a photographic memory that he used to memorise the centrifuge design while working at Almelo in the Netherlands from 1972-75. Second, Khan was most useful in deflecting international attention which was focused on him because he had shifted from the Netherlands to Pakistan. It’s a known fact that Khan had himself contacted Bhutto and offered his services. He was a known name around the world as he was wanted in the Netherlands with court cases against him. General Zia-ul-Haq built on this reputation by turning Khan into the face of the nuclear program – that not only kept attention away from all others that were silently working on the nuclear program but used his face often to signal to India. Khan’s statements made the stories believable.

But this also meant that the popular narrative until the end of the 1990s was of Khan as ‘father of the Islamic bomb.’ Abdul Qadeer personally encouraged this narrative. For instance, journalist and proprietor of daily Observer Zahid Malik was personally rewarded by Dr. Khan for writing the book AQ Khan and the Islamic Bomb that presented the program as Khan’s sole achievement. The book also did what Qadeer Khan wanted the most – rubbish other scientists like the head of the PAEC, Munir Ahmed khan. Khan had convinced Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto to allow him an independent infrastructure, the KRL, by arguing against Munir as someone who lacked capacity. Bhutto would often harshly reprimand Munir for alleged delays that were because of capacity issues in R&D rather than ill will. Khan had caught on to Bhutto’s power ambitions and lack of understanding of the underlying scientific process. By 1998, scientists at the PAEC had become uncomfortable with Khan and his network. These were these men that worked hard without indulging in the level of predation that Khan did. And these were these scientists that had advised Bhutto to talk about the need for a nuclear weapons program in his 1972 Multan speech. However, it was Dr. Samar Mubarakmand, who in 1998 headed a sister concern of the PAEC called the National Development Complex (NDC), that confronted Khan.

A little known journalist Shahid-ur-Rehman wrote in a slim book published in 1999 about the bitterness and friction between Khan and Mubarakmand. This was to be the first and most genuine account of the friction that came out in his book titled A Long Road to Chagai. According to the account, both men wanted to be the ones to push the button as Pakistan tested its atomic weapons in response to India’s tests in 1998. The story, as told by Rehman, is that Nawaz Sharif had called Khan and asked him if he could respond to the Indian tests immediately. While Khan asked for some time, Mubarakmand and the rest of the PAEC were ready for the show. In the end, Khan couldn’t dominate the process but had to cooperate. However, he wanted to push the button in recognition of his services and Mubarakmand wanted the same. Eventually, both were present at the time of the test.

Given that Shahid-ur-Rehman was not a known journalist, I didn’t take this story seriously, especially as I went to meet both Khan and Mubarakmand in 1999. This time, my reason was official. I was then working as Director of Naval Research at the Pakistan Navy headquarters and had to meet both men due to some official work, which meant that I didn’t intend to whet my appetite for information regarding the nuclear tests. But I was surprised when Mubarakmand voluntarily opened up to crib about Abdul Qadeer Khan. It was like a daughter-in-law complaining about her mother-in-law or vice versa. To Khan’s credit, he didn’t mention his institutional adversary but kept to the usual boasting about his work. He was still his charming self, who would go an extra mile in building his personal fan following. He did do these small endearing gestures like, for example, I got a personally signed letter from Dr. Khan in response to my ‘thank you’ note for his interview after I finished my Ph.D. He and his team at KRL were committed to proliferating his charm offensive. In early 1998, when my house at Lahore was broken into, I received a call from his personal military secretary, inquiring about my well-being and if he could be of any help.

At Koh Kambaran near the nuclear test site; AQ Khan and Samar Mubarakmand are on either side of the man in the blue beret, who is believed to be General Zulfikar Ali

Hence, Mubarakmand had a lot of catching up to do in turning the narrative in his favour. He did build on available opportunities like developing ties with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who was from the same province as himself. Unlike Khan, who was a migrant from Bhopal, India, Mubarakmand was a Punjabi. But something more important than ethnicity was playing upon Khan’s misuse of the lack of financial accountability of KRL for personal benefits that convinced the military to launch an inquiry against Dr. Khan.

The first case was initiated under Nawaz Sharif to probe the missing ‘Ghauri’ missles, that was carried forward even by Pervez Musharraf after he took over in October 1999. Visibly after 1998, the establishment started to replace Khan with Mubarakmand as a hero. In early 2000s, the Defense Journal published a long essay in which it became clear that one hero was being replaced by another. The new narrative was silent about Khan’s achievements. This was also before the illegal nuclear sale scandal and the confession in 2004 broke out. But Mubarakmand, as is obvious from his needless boosting about tremendous capacity to extract copper at RekoDiq, was made from the same metal as Khan.

Is this an individual manufacturing defect or our problem as a nation? We are so eager to turn our heroes into saints that we shy from making them accountable and soon push them towards becoming sinners. One hopes that the greater institutionalising of nuclear decision-making, introduction of firmer rules of command and control and bringing the nuclear scientific community under centralised authority will eliminate the slippage of performers from one category to another. 

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

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