AQ Khan’s ‘Nuke Network’: How US Ignored Pak Ambitions, All for Afghanistan

Pakistan’s nuclear 'hero' went rogue, but it all happened under the watch of major powers.

5 min read
<div class="paragraphs"><p>Known as the 'father of Pakistan's nuclear bomb', Abdul Qadeer Khan passed away at the age of 85.</p></div>

It was 1979. And the President, Jimmy Carter, the Czar of nonproliferation, had been presented with a memo indicating that Pakistan was moving rapidly towards acquiring a nuclear weapon. Reports seemed to indicate that the centre of the clandestine and criminal activity was a Pakistani metallurgist called Abdul Qadeer Khan. In the event, Carter did nothing despite a torrent of certain intelligence. Pakistan conducted its nuclear tests in 1998, and it wasn’t till 2001 that the activities of Khan as a hypermarket of all things nuclear were ‘officially’ exposed as the ‘AQ Khan network’. It was nothing of the kind. It was a Pakistani network starting from the Prime Minister downwards. What emerges is a typical Pakistani story, of deceit, theft and rampant ambition of a small country that barely had the means to feed itself. Now that AQ Khan is dead, some part of the truth needs to be acknowledged.

Abdul Qadeer Khan’s personal details are easily available — that he was born in Bhopal to a school teacher, that he stole nuclear centrifuge designs from the Netherlands from a company called Urenco, and that he ‘wept’ after the defeat of Pakistan in 1971.

Less known is the fact that his activities were reported by his colleague Frits Veerman, who was fired for his pains, even while the Dutch intelligence tried to cover up its failures. Khan, now working under the direction of his Prime Minister Zulfikar Bhutto, offered him a job, and later, indicating the first beginnings of his ‘network’, so did diplomats from Iraq, Iran and other Mid-Eastern countries. Meanwhile, Khan continued to ‘shop’ at Brussels and other parts of Europe for what he wanted. And through all this, the CIA merely watched.


The US Approach

Newly declassified documents underline this and much more, including that the earliest reports of Pakistani ambitions were in 1978; that General Zia himself told visiting scholar Stephen Cohen that Pakistan wanted ‘two-three nuclear weapons’ at a dinner where army seniors were present, that the British had shared detailed information from sources that remain redacted even today, that both France and Australia were aware of the Kahuta enrichment plant, and worst of all, that the beginnings of a nuclear supermarket were taking shape as the Pakistanis sourced uranium cake from Niger.

The cherry on the top is this: documents reveal that the US considered but discarded a ‘brutal’ approach of sabotage or destruction of Pakistani facilities, refused another suggestion to ‘out’ the whole thing and declare US knowledge, and even decided that a cut-off of aid “risks enhancing Pakistan's sense of isolation and insecurity, which are the primary motivating factors prompting their search for a nuclear deterrent”. That was an argument that Delhi was to hear for years, even after Pakistani actions were virtually admitted by AQ Khan himself in an interview with Kuldip Nayar in 1987.

Another unbelievable suggestion was that the US bring in other countries, such as China, to pressure Pakistan. This when China was already involved in assisting in the Pakistan nuclear programme probably from the 1970s.

And the reason for all this shilly-shallying? The Afghan war and the need to defeat the Soviets. The US did impose conditions of the Glenn/Symington Amendment in 1979, barring economic and military aid, lifted shortly thereafter as the Afghan adventure began. Later, by 2009, US President Barack Obama was calling the dangers of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons falling into the hands of a terrorist organisation his "worst nightmare".

The AQ Khan network

Books have now been written about the “AQ Khan network” that involved not just Khan taking his shopping trolley across the globe in search of required parts for his own country, but also a slew of others. He provided Iran with centrifuges for its own nuclear programme, and for which he was paid some $3 million.

Don’t forget that by this time, Iranian scientists were being trained in Pakistan under a bilateral agreement. This was no dodgy underhand deal. It had full state support. And in return for ‘assisting’ Iran, Khan got an entry to North Korea, which had long been conniving with Tehran. Under the direction of his Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, he went in for a barter system that involved giving North Korea centrifuge designs in exchange for the Nodong missile, which was then rechristened the “Ghauri”.

Then there were other countries like Libya. A report for the US Congress observed that “Beyond blueprints, components, full assemblies of centrifuges, and low-enriched uranium, Libya also received — startlingly — a nuclear weapons design ... some sources have reported that the design contained Chinese text and step-by-step instructions for assembling a 1960s HEU implosion device, which could indicate that Khan passed on a design Pakistan is long-rumoured to have received from China”. Again, state-to-state cooperation. Then there was Saudi Arabia, which is now known to have financed the Pakistani nuclear programme. Intelligence on this was long available, with Senator John Glenn issuing a warning. All of that went unheeded, with every US administration doing its utmost to keep all this from Congress. In 1990, President Bush refused to certify that Pakistan did not possess a nuclear weapon as required by the Pressler Amendment, resulting in a temporary cut-off of aid. The Brown Amendment gave another waiver, which then allowed resumption of military aid.


A Twisted Blame Game

When Khan’s wings were clipped in 2001 by US pressure, and he was later put under virtual house arrest, the Musharraf government gave out that all this worldwide ‘illicit trafficking network’ — a term that continues to stick — was his own initiative entirely. Khan was made to go on state television and say as much. But Khan had his own ‘insurance’ up his sleeve. In an interview with a British journalist, he produced a letter from Jon Byong Ho, then the secretary of the North Korean Workers' party, believed to have masterminded the state's covert trade in nuclear and missile technology, stating that the North Koreans had paid $3 million to Pakistan's former Army Chief, General Jehangir Karamat, and another half a million to Lt General Zulfiqar Khan, who was involved in Pakistan's nuclear bomb tests. US officials later confirmed the details in the letter.

And yet, Khan continued to be seen as a ‘rogue operator’ for the same reasons that the original whistleblower had been dismissed. American officials were not ready to ditch Pakistan just yet, especially when General Musharraf had not just hauled the Taliban back to Pakistan, but also made efforts to rid his army of the actual radical elements. Today, headlines in BBC, whose country clearly knew better, still deride him for having ‘smuggled’ nuclear parts across the world.

The Irony of the 'Rogue Operator' Tag

The tag of a “rogue operator’ is a sheer irony to anyone who knows the Pakistani system, which is not just dominated by the military, but also has a bureaucracy that exemplifies the Greek philosopher Sextus Empiricus writing that “the mills of God grind slowly, but they grind exceedingly small”. Nothing at all escapes either of these, least of all a huge nuclear programme that finally benefited the Pakistani state.

The recently released classified documents show that all major powers had full knowledge of a network that doesn’t seem to have bothered too much about hiding its activities, at least in the beginning.

It only went truly underground after Khan was ‘removed’ from his post at the Khan Research Laboratories. In sum, Khan deserves a break. He helped set up not only Pakistan’s nuclear programme, but also that of Iran and North Korea, and possibly others, with the CIA not ever reporting this in its annual assessments on proliferation. It’s not Khan who should be reprimanded but those who ignored and continue to obfuscate his role in what is surely the most dangerous activity on earth.

(Dr Tara Kartha is a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS). She tweets at @kartha_tara. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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