Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan, who died in Islamabad on Sunday (October 10) of Covid-related complications at age 85, was revered in Pakistan as the “father” of the country’s “atom bomb”. In popular lore, he is eulogised as the man who single-handedly ensured that Pakistan succeeded in to making nuclear weapons, and in this significant respect, made Pakistan an equal of India.
The international shame he brought Pakistan for running a rogue nuclear network and proliferating for personal profit did not dent his stature at all. Instead, the man who was born in Bhopal in 1936, and whose family migrated to Pakistan during Partition, was seen as a patriot, the victim of an international conspiracy to rob Pakistan of its nuclear jewels, and to defame the country.
Khan’s nation honoured him with the titles of Nishan-e-Imtiaz (Order of Excellence, Pakistan’s highest civilian honour) and Mohsin-e-Pakistan (Benefactor of Pakistan).
But his colleagues at the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission scoffed at his nuclear credentials — his main qualification was as a metallurgical engineer — and he was reportedly not the leader of the team that tested Pakistan’s nuclear device in May 1998 after India carried out its tests in Pokharan, although he was present at the test site in Chagai. What everyone acknowledges, though, is his role in providing the first blueprints for Pakistan’s centrifuges, setting it on the path to uranium enrichment.
Stealer of nuclear secrets
In February 2004, months after the US confronted Pakistan’s then military ruler General Pervez Musharraf with evidence that Khan had been selling parts of centrifuges and material to Libya, North Korea and Iran, Musharraf was forced to take action. In an address to the nation, he denounced Khan in strong language.
Following this, Khan made a confession on national television and called it an “error of judgement” on his part. Balancing between opinion at home and intense international scrutiny, Musharraf pardoned him but placed him under house arrest. On the Paksitani street, however, Khan was a hero. His photographs were in shops and marketplaces, and his face painted on the backs of trucks and autos.
Pakistan was shocked, but Khan had been under western intelligence surveillance almost from the start of his nuclear technology career.
In 1975, a year after India detonated its first nuclear device, Khan, then working in Holland in a uranium enrichment facility as a German-Dutch translator, offered his services to then PM Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who wanted Pakistan to have its own nuclear programme.
The Dutch facility suspected him of stealing blueprints for making centrifuges and other components, but he returned to Pakistan before any action could be taken against him. In 1976, he joined Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission’s nuclear weapons effort. He was convicted by a Dutch court for the theft.
Already in 2001, Khan had been forced by Musharraf to retire, and given the consolation title of Chief Advisor to the head of Khan Research Laboratories. Musharraf took this step because of suspicion about his activities.
From then on, it was downhill for Khan. Indeed, he had personified Pakistan’s nuclear weapons effort from the 1981 onwards, when General Zia-ul Haq, the then military ruler, renamed Engineering Research Laboratories after Khan. He was a more public personality than any of Pakistan’s other nuclear scientists.
The ‘secret’ Pak bomb
It was Khan who outed that Pakistan had a nuclear device more than a decade before its retaliatory 1998 test. In 1987, ge told the veteran Indian journalist Kuldip Nayar in an interview: “America knows it. What the CIA has been saying about our possessing the bomb is correct, and so is the speculation of some foreign newspapers. They told us Pakistan could never produce the bomb and they doubted my capabilities. But they know we have it.”
Nayar asked him why Pakistan had not announced this achievement. Khan replied: “Is it necessary? America has threatened to cut off all its aid.”
It was seen as a deliberate leak by Pakistan, as a message to Delhi, serving to hasten India’s own nuclear weapons programme.
Rehab after Musharraf
After President Musharraf stepped down in August 2008, Khan petitioned the Islamabad High Court for his release. The new PPP government had already come under tremendous pressure to release him. In 2009, the court declared him a “free citizen,” but only after it had brokered a “secret agreement” between him and the government. The court barred either side from making the details public.
The details of the agreement were contained in a US diplomatic cable leaked by Wikileaks in 2011. Under the agreement, Khan had agreed to a number of conditions, including not travelling outside Islamabad without informing the authorities in advance, not travelling abroad, and submitting names of visitors to his home for vetting.
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According to the cable, then Interior Secretary Kamal Shah had assured the US Ambassador that the government of Pakistan retained all powers to keep him on a tight leash. Shah defended the court order by saying it had given the government “legal cover “ for an “extrajudicial” house arrest.
Within minutes of becoming a “free citizen” though, Khan held an impromptu press conference outside his home in Islamabad’s E-7 sector. He later took to writing a column in the Pakistani daily The News. In 2012, he also tried to float a political party named Tehreek-e-Tahaffuz-e-Pakistan, which, despite his personal popularity, sank without a trace by the following year.
The final years
In 2019, Khan moved a fundamental rights petition in the Supreme Court of Pakistan against the restrictions on his free travel across the country. During hearings earlier this year, counsel for Khan complained that he was not being allowed to meet his relatives and friends.
The court asked the government to get a list of the people Khan wanted to meet, and to resolve the matter. The judge described Khan as the “Mohsin (benefactor) of Pakistan”, and said he should be well cared for.
The case was still being heard when Khan contracted Covid. He was moved to the military hospital in Rawalpindi, from where he was discharged after recovering from the virus. He died within weeks of complications in his lungs.