In a recent interview to Pakistan’s daily newspaper Jang, AQ Khan made the startling revelation that he had passed on nuclear secrets to two countries at the explicit orders of then prime minister Benazir Bhutto. By all standards, this should be yet another shocking disclosure from the infamous Khan, but the Khan narrative has gone through so many metamorphoses that it has become hard to keep track of them all. It all comes back to, however, the fundamentally reactionary and flawed basis of the failed Pakistani dictatorship, and AQ Khan’s activities – his theft, nuclear blackmarketeering, and lying – serve as a reflection of what is wrong with Islamabad.
AQ Khan first came to notice in the Netherlands. Dutch intelligence had been monitoring Khan since 1972 when he first joined Physical Dynamic Research Laboratory (FDO), a subcontractor of Ultra Centrifuge Nederland (UCN), UCN being the Dutch partner in the Urenco uranium enrichment consortium. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, American intelligence officials convinced Dutch authorities, according to former Dutch Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers, on two occasions not to arrest Khan for the purposes of monitoring his activities further. Khan, however, gave them the slip and escaped to his native Pakistan, where he went on to becoming one of the most important figures in Islamabad’s nuclear programme (there is some doubt as to the role he actually payed, since strong evidence exists now that the Pakistanis received bomb designs from China’s 4th nuclear test). The Dutch government had to be content with trying and sentencing AQ Khan in absentia in 1983 for espionage (four years imprisonment).
The sordid story of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb and the US and Chinese roles in it is well known. It was only in 2003 that the world came to know of AQ Khan’s nuclear black market network when reports emerged from Iran and Libya of Pakistan’s assistance to their nuclear programmes. Also in 2003, in April, German authorities intercepted a ship in the Suez Canal with a large cargo of strong aluminum tubing en route to North Korea, intended for use as outer casings for P-2 centrifuges. In October, the German cargo ship BBC China was intercepted en route to Libya with components for 1,000 centrifuges. Even more damaging was the discovery that although the US had known about this as early as the early 1990s, not much was done to stop it (David Albright, “An Iranian Bomb,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist 51, no. 4 (July/August 1995): 20–26). When news broke out, the Pakistani government nonetheless initially resisted arresting Khan, whom most Pakistanis considered a national hero. It was only after Colin Powell personally met with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf that Khan was finally arrested and placed under house arrest in January 2004.
A month later, Khan made his first revelation that he had sold nuclear technology to other unnamed countries. Investigations (IAEA reports, scholarly research, documents Khan had smuggled out and given to a British journalist as insurance, interviews of Pakistani officials) later revealed the extent of Khan’s network of suppliers, from Europe, South Africa, Japan, and even North America, and identified the his main clients (other than Pakistan) as Iran, North Korea, and Libya (he had approached Iraq in 1990 but Iraqi officials suspected his offer to be a sting operation and turned him down). In his detailed confession, Khan initially accepted all blame on himself. However, such clarity was not to last and he disavowed his mea culpa soon.
Khan’s deceptions are no less layered than an onion – his first story was that the military was the real mastermind behind the entire operation and he was mere following the orders of his paymasters. Soon, that story changed to the black market operations being a sideshow of his Dubai-based middlemen – he had given them the technical drawings so that they could procure the necessary components but they had not only acquired components for him but also other customers and he had only a little knowledge of their activities. Then came yet another story from Khan, his fourth tale now, that fused elements of all the three previous ones. In this, he explained how the military officials made him sell nuclear secrets which he did through the Dubai middle-men and was double-crossed in return. Khan, however was the lynch pin. As Joshua Pollack explained the chronology in a recent article in Playboy (yes, that Playboy!), Khan’s overall narrative places him at the centre of the Pakistani nuclear programme, from stealing centrifuge designs to inking cooperation with the Chinese, and then passes the buck to the military when the black marketeering starts. In the late 1980s, General Karamat of the army agreed to sell nuclear technology to North Korea for pecuniary gains, and around 1990, General Mirza Aslam Beg promised the same to the Iranians. General Imtiaz Ahmed, then head of the nuclear programme, was complicit in these deals. Khan alludes to a Dr. Niazi, a dental surgeon, who was a close friend of Benazir Bhutto, being part of the discussions. In his latest embellishment to Jang, then prime minister Bhutto herself summoned him and ordered him to supply his designs to two countries. Conveniently for Khan, all the key conspirators are dead and none of his story can be verified.
So what is the verdict on AQ Khan and his country? It is hard not to notice that while Pakistani political and military leaders came and went, Khan remained. Given that what Khan sold was basically designs and not components, it is quite conceivable that he acted alone. However, it would have been hard for Khan to hide any financial benefits from his transactions – his position in Pakistan’s clandestine nuclear weapons programme is a virtual guarantee that Pakistani intelligence kept tabs on him. Given the close watch kept on him, it is not inconceivable that Pakistan’s top military and political leaders were involved in his nefarious dealings – after all, his list of clients, like Pakistan itself, bore no goodwill towards the US or Western democracies. Pakistani leaders meticulously maintained a veneer of charm that gave Western observers enough reason not to look too closely at the South Asian state’s activities, particularly if other needs – access to Afghanistan and/or China – were being met.
Ultimately, it is difficult to separate fact from fiction in Khan’s intricate web of deceit unless Pakistan allows real access to the father of their nuclear programme. That is not about to happen, and a man former CIA director George Tenet described in 2004 as “at least as dangerous as Osama bin Laden” is walking free and even establishing his own political party. For a little bit of money and driven by a little bit of vanity, AQ Khan has made this world a lot more dangerous.
This article appeared on Niti Central on September 18, 2012.