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The wrong father of the bomb

A new book in Pakistan raises damning questions about A.Q. Khan

Written by Khaled Ahmed |
July 19, 2013 12:07:13 am

A new book in Pakistan raises damning questions about A.Q. Khan

I fell for Kuldip Nayar when I met him first in 1990-91 during a track-two dialogue between India and Pakistan. Many people in Pakistan consider the maverick journalist a friendly Indian,barring moments when he unleashes on us some home truths we don’t relish. I hear that in India his fraternity is divided over his stature,but I give him full marks for one scoop that no other journalist in India can boast: A.Q. Khan’s confession that Pakistan had gone nuclear. Kuldip probably still doesn’t know what that scoop actually unleashed on Pakistan.

Kuldip had travelled to Pakistan in 1987,to attend the wedding of Mushahid Hussain Syed,then editor of the Islamabad daily The Muslim and currently a senator,who said he would give a “wedding gift” (sic) to him by throwing him together with A.Q. Khan,believed by most Pakistanis to be the father of Pakistan’s atom bomb. The meeting took place and Kuldip was able to squeeze the truth out of him about a lab-tested bomb ready for delivery.

He thought the interview was sanctioned by the government — meaning President Zia ul-Haq — but the truth that came out this year indicated that it was planned and executed by General Aslam Beg,who later became second-in-command to General Zia and was close to Khan. He may have persuaded Mushahid Hussain to help in his plot to “showcase” the Pakistani bomb.

In his latest book,Beyond the Lines: An Autobiography,Kuldip tells the story thus: “thought I would provoke him. Egoist that he was,he might fall for the bait. And he did. I concocted a story and told him that when I was coming to Pakistan,I ran into Dr Homi Sethna,father of India’s nuclear bomb,who asked me why I was wasting my time because Pakistan had neither the men nor the material to make such a weapon.” A.Q. Khan exploded and boasted that Pakistan had made the bomb,adding the threat,“If you ever drive us to the wall,as you did in East Pakistan,we will use the bomb”.

Kuldip proceeded to sell his story to a newspaper in London. On its publication,the proverbial excrement hit the fan in Pakistan. What happened thereafter has been made public by Brigadier (retd) Feroz Hassan Khan in his book,Eating grass: The making of the Pakistani bomb. The book painstakingly and convincingly proves that Khan was not the father of the bomb and he was punished by General Zia for having colluded with General Beg to make the bomb public. It says: “Islamabad’s reaction to the publication of the interview was swift and severe. A.Q. Khan was first called to explain himself to Senate Chairman Ghulam Ishaq Khan; next he was directed to report to General K.M. Arif,the Vice Chief of Army Staff,who supposedly grilled Khan in his office. A.Q. Khan claimed that ‘he was tricked (by Mushahid) into meeting the Indian journalist’. Finally,he was summoned to the president’s house. Lieutenant-General Syed Rifaqat Ali,who was chief of staff to President Zia ul-Haq,narrated to the author how the wrath of Zia fell on Khan.” After a normally polite Zia had finished with Khan,the latter was seen leaving “trembling and perspiring”.

Hassan Khan is no ordinary author. He is an acknowledged “insider” who was once director at the apex nukes establishment called Strategic Plans Division: “Soon afterward,Zia directed the bomb-designing project to be taken away from Khan and returned to the dedicated team in Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC). The newlywed Mushahid Hussain soon lost his job at Muslim. The Zia government deprived the newspaper of all government advertisements,isolated it,and economically crippled it,putting it out of business. [But damage to the nuclear policy could not be reversed.”

The “scientists” making the bomb were polarised between head of the PAEC,Munir Ahmad Khan,and A.Q. Khan,who was to head the famous Khan Research Laboratories. Islamist Zia had taken the “bomb” project from Munir because he thought Munir was an Ahmadi,and had given it to A.Q. Khan. (Under Bhutto,Ahmadi Nobel Laureate Abdus Salam had made a crucial “manpower” contribution to the bomb from his institution in Trieste,Italy.)

The book proves that A.Q. Khan did not make the bomb and does not qualify as the stud who fathered the country’s “nuclear deterrent”. The GHQ verdict was: “Munir was a sober,quiet and unassuming person dedicated to his work. A.Q. Khan was a glib-tongued flamboyant individual always in search of publicity and glory.”

A more damning view is expressed thus: “The Pakistani government overlooked Khan’s activities because it believed the benefit he provided outweighed the cost of corruption. A.Q. Khan was a go-getter,a people-pleaser,and a hero. He was a master at kickbacks and bribes which kept scrutiny away from his activities — at least temporarily. Also,many of those who observed his bureaucratic malpractices were themselves beneficiaries of the system.”

When in 1998,the moment came to test the bomb at Chaghai,A.Q. Khan was kept out of the “ceremony”. Clearly,it was Samar Mubarakmand,heading the PAEC,who was finally acknowledged as the father of the device. At the button-pressing ceremony,A.Q. Khan tried to insist that he perform the final act. Both sides settled on a junior scientist from PAEC.

Hassan Khan tells us about the “proliferation” triggered by A.Q. Khan for personal gain,selling blueprints and centrifuges from North Korea and Iran to Libya,till he was finally caught in the act,and had to be gagged and confined by the Pakistan army.

The most damning passage relates to A.Q. Khan writing to the army chief of Sri Lanka,asking for help in retrieving money owed to him by a Sri Lankan. He actually threatened him if he did not do the needful — for $300,000. The letter A.Q. Khan wrote on Government of Pakistan letterhead stationery as a “federal minister”,stated that in case the army chief did not oblige,he would get in touch with Prabhakaran,leader of the terrorist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to do the job (page 365).

I wonder if the author knew the dangerous link he was revealing between A.Q. Khan and terrorism,especially in the context of General Zia’s own death in an air crash in 1988,which was clearly seen by all in Pakistan as an act of terrorism staged from within Zia’s establishment. After Zia’s death,the beneficiary was clearly his second-in-command,General Aslam Beg,who became the army chief and soon visited Iran,returning with a nuclear “deal” worth $5 billion,which Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif wisely turned down.

The writer is a consulting editor with ‘Newsweek Pakistan’

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