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Decoding the truth behind Pakistan’s A-bomb

What really happened behind the scenes? Former anti-corruption investigator Hassan Abbas points to possible answers.

books Updated: Aug 25, 2018 09:36 IST
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri
Hindustan Times
AQ Khan,Pakistan,Atomic bomb
AQ Khan, the father of Pakistan’s atomic bomb. (Aamir Qureshi / AFP Photo)

In February 2004, the father of Pakistan’s atomic bomb, AQ Khan, confessed on television he had been running a nuclear smuggling ring. Hassan Abbas, then part of Islamabad’s anti-corruption investigation body, was asked to investigate. He abandoned the effort as being beyond his organisation’s paygrade, though not before gaining some access to scientists involved in Pakistan’s nuclear programme. That experience, plus a careful reading of the existing literature, is brought together in an interesting but inevitably incomplete volume.

There are two schools of thought regarding AQ Khan, Abbas writes. One argues that Khan’s covert nuclear deals with various international undesirables were rogue operations. Proponents of this theory “contend there is scant evidence to support the allegation of state authorisation”. Unsurprisingly this represents the conclusion of all official investigations into Khan’s activities. The other school argues Khan exploited the spaces created by conflict between different Pakistani state bodies over the A-bomb, co-opting specific policy-makers at different times. After delivering the bomb to Pakistan, Khan simply gamed the system.

The story of Khan – his theft of Western nuclear tech, his successful building of an enriched-uranium nuclear weapons programme, the on-and-off attempts by Washington to stop him and his proliferation network, and the complex bureaucratic and political manoeuvres he had to carry out with various generals and scientists – are covered in the early chapters but largely draw from existing sources.

342pp, Rs 699; Penguin Random House

Khan’s clandestine sale of nuclear technology and equipment to Iran, North Korea and Libya are where the question marks are thickest. When it comes to the extent to which the Pakistani military abetted this illegal trade, Abbas draws a picture of deals that are initially winked at by Rawalpindi and then quietly taken forward or resumed after a few years by Khan on his own initiative.

North Korea, with whom Pakistan traded centrifuges for missiles, is described as a largely G2G affair. Nuclear trading with Iran was taken up under the patronage of General Mirza Aslam Beg who hoped this would cement a Pakistan-Iran-Afghanistan bloc that could defy India and the West. Beg and his delusions disappeared after a few years, but Khan continued dealing with Iran in return for millions of dollars. By then it was questionable whether a nuclear-armed Iran was even in Pakistan’s strategic interest. While Libya provided money to Pakistan’s nuclear programme as early as the 1970s, the evidence points to much of the subsequent nuclear commerce being Khan’s own money-making operation. All this caught up with him when Tripoli, abandoning its nuclear ambitions, exposed Khan and paved the way for his downfall.

Khan is portrayed as an unattractive character – street smart but egotistical and greedy. Abbas was surprised as to how many officers and scientists he interviewed expressed dislike for the man. He comes to the conclusion that Pakistan’s nuclear Walmart was not because of an overreaching strategy of the generals, rather it flowed from “a combination of factors” including Khan’s ambition, Pakistan’s need to compete with India, “weak state institutions; fragmented decision-making processes; and compartmentalised authority structures”. This was not a well-thought out plan but rather a consequence of Khan’s ability to hide his activities in an “environment of constant crisis,” an “enabling environment” of “chaos and instability.”

What receives only a few mentions is the larger, better-financed and more secretive plutonium weapons programme of Munir Khan of the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission. This part of the programme seems never to have done dirty deeds overseas but the smaller, more potent warheads it created are the spearpoint of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal today. Without the plutonium programme, the story of nuclear Pakistan remains unfinished. Ultimately, Abbas had successfully brought together most of what we know about Pakistan’s nuclear programme, pointed the reader towards some possible answers and made the argument that AQ Khan’s antics are a symptom of Pakistan’s larger malaise rather than the beginning-and-end of its nuclear ambitions.

First Published: Aug 24, 2018 22:19 IST