Opening the A. Q. Khan Can of Worms

KARACHI – The release of Pakistani rogue nuclear scientist, Abdul Qadeer Khan, underlines major issues confronting Pakistan – and indeed the world – ranging from nuclear proliferation to governance, corruption, hypocrisy, and how public opinion is shaped by falsehoods.

Generally referred to, even by the international media, as "the father of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb," A.Q. Khan’s role is in fact rather different from this popular perception.

It was the late Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto who, while foreign minister, famously declared in 1965 that "Pakistan will eat grass or leaves, even go hungry, in order to develop a (nuclear) program of its own."

As minister for mineral resources Bhutto got the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC, founded in 1954) to set up the Pakistan Institute of Nuclear Sciences and Technology in 1960, sending hundreds of students abroad to study physics and other nuclear-related science disciplines.

"After the Chinese nuclear test in 1964, he concluded that if India would go nuclear Pakistan would have to follow the suit," commented the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in a 2007 dossier on the Pakistan nuclear program.

Pakistan’s traumatic military defeat in December 1971 – when the country’s eastern wing, aided by India, gained liberation to become Bangladesh – prompted Bhutto, by then president and chief martial law administrator, to prioritize the nuclear weapons program.

In January 1972, Bhutto flew the country’s top scientists to Multan city in southern Punjab, tasking them with completing the project in three years.

Pakistan’s well-regarded monthly Defense Journal detailed Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program in its cover story of May 2004, "Remembering Unsung Heroes: Munir Ahmed Khan." The report terms Bhutto, the "political" father, and A.Q. Khan’s boss, Munir Ahmed Khan, the "technical" father of the bomb.

"Munir’s 40-year association with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna – as a member of its scientific staff, and later its board of governors, which he also chaired – was seen by his enemies as evidence of his questionable loyalty" to Pakistan, wrote the Independent, London in its obituary after Munir’s death in Vienna, in 1999.

These enemies included Khan who went out of his way to malign Munir, who kept an enigmatic silence.

"In truth, Munir and AQ represent two strands of thinking in Pakistan’s defense and foreign policy. Munir represented a dying generation who live in the hope that Pakistan will one day play an influential role in world affairs by maintaining friendships and alliances with the West. AQ, on the other hand, represents a growing constituency, which believes that the security interests of Western countries are incompatible with those of the Muslim world," reads the obituary.

The obituary described Munir as a "a patriot, a voice of reason who was committed to international safeguards for Pakistan’s nuclear technology, and who would despair whenever politicians reached for the nuclear card. But others in Pakistan’s nuclear establishment believe that he was against Pakistan acquiring bomb-making technology."

The Defense Journal article notes that Munir and PAEC "followed the path of silently pursuing the nuclear goal for Pakistan in line with the country’s stated policy of nuclear ambiguity… and insisted… that Pakistan’s nuclear program was strictly for peaceful purposes."

Secondly, "because it was indeed a covert period, Qadeer was encouraged to pose as the Father of the Bomb, even though he was responsible for just one of 24 steps, each crucial to making nuclear weapons… Qadeer was used as a decoy to divert attention from the PAEC, where the real work was being done."

The government used Khan, says the report, at the time of the India’s massive ‘Brasstacks’ military exercises of 1986-87 to declare "that Pakistan had the bomb and would use it against India if its security was endangered."

"The West made him a villain, and the people, especially the media, and the government, went out of the way to portray him as hero, and at a time when the nation was in dire need of heroes," comments the report.

Khan headed the Kahuta Research Laboratories (KRL) tasked with fast-tracking the nuclear enrichment program "He went into contracts, went rogue in cahoots with elements in the army," said a political observer speaking on condition of anonymity.

In January 2004 the ‘hero’ took a fall. "The Iranians and Libyans were furious with him for trying to sell them outdated enrichment models," commented the observer.

Khan appeared on the state-run Pakistan Television (PTV), confessed to selling nuclear secrets to Iran, Libya and North Korea and sought the nation’s forgiveness.

A month later, then president and army chief Pervez Musharraf magnanimously "forgave" him but had him placed under house arrest, barring him from access to the outside world.

Pakistan has consistently denied foreign powers permission to question Khan on his alleged proliferation activities, even after the civilian government elected in Feb 2008 eased restrictions on him.

In his first public appearance after four years, in May 2008, Khan denied having sold nuclear technology illegally. He said he was innocent but had signed the confession that the authorities handed him and read it out on national television in the nation’s "best interest."

He was released from house arrest on Feb. 7, after the Islamabad High Court, giving a verdict on several petitions filed against his detention, ruled that the charges against Khan could not be substantiated and declared him a "free man."

The Federal Minister for Defense, Chaudhry Ahmed Mukhtar, has confirmed that Khan was released "under an agreement," the details of which he did not divulge.

However, Syed Ali Zafar, the scientist’s lawyer, mentioned at the time of the court verdict that according to this deal, the state "will provide my client (A.Q. Khan) security and will release him from house arrest."

"It is obviously an out-of-court settlement between the government and A.Q. Khan," prominent physicist A.H. Nayyar, currently a research fellow at the Sustainable Development Policy Institute in Islamabad, told IPS. "The government was finding it difficult to pursue the court case, and released him with conditions of confidentiality."

The U.S. State Department has called Khan’s release "extremely regrettable" and "unfortunate." Washington has sought assurances that he will not get involved in nuclear proliferation again while Britain has asked Pakistan to allow the IAEA access to the scientist.

"I don’t think there is anything to get so worried about," said Nayyar. "He has no access to the nuclear establishment anymore."

Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi has categorically stated that Khan stands relieved of his duties and had nothing to do with the country’s nuclear-related policies.

"We have successfully broken the network that he had set up and today he has no say and has no access to any sensitive areas of Pakistan," Qureshi said. "A.Q. Khan is history."

"In fact, his release may be a good thing," added Nayyar, an anti-nuclear activist. "He likes talking to the press, and may blurt out some useful information. Plus, if he is allowed to travel abroad, people can accost him and get him to confess. They should be happy they have more access to him."

Many Pakistanis still regard Khan as a hero for making the country a nuclear state, but others are more skeptical.

"The disinformation is so extreme, it is shocking how the private television channels celebrated his release," one Karachi-based observer told IPS, asking not to be named. "How come people are not curious about how he made so much money and brought international disgrace upon the country? He should be in jail and tried for treason."

That is unlikely to happen, say observers, because at least some elements of the Pakistan army must have been involved in Khan’s deals, without which they would not have been possible.

Khan in an interview of July 2008, said that a shipment of centrifuges from Pakistan to North Korea in 2000 was "supervised by the army during the rule of President Pervez Musharraf… the army had complete knowledge about it and the equipment."

Releasing Khan now, says an analyst, "will either expose all who were involved, or it is plain foolishness."