The collective complicity for AQ Khan
The death of AQ Khan, the metallurgist celebrated in Pakistan for his contribution to its nuclear programme, concludes a sordid chapter in the history of nuclear proliferation and arms control. After 2004, Khan gained notoriety for his transfers, between the 1980s and 2003, of sensitive nuclear technology to Iran, Libya, and North Korea, among others. His death leaves many inconvenient questions unanswered, which is convenient for those in Pakistan and elsewhere who bear responsibility for enabling his proliferation network through acts of commission and omission.
In the early 1970s, the Bhopal-born, Germany-trained Khan was working in the Netherlands at a sub-contractor for Urenco, which manufactured centrifuges used to concentrate uranium-235. While intended for generating fuel for nuclear energy, the same enrichment process can also produce fissile material for nuclear bombs. After India’s 1974 peaceful nuclear explosion, Khan offered his services to Pakistan’s then Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.
In late 1975, Khan moved to Pakistan with his family, having stolen detailed technical plans and materials from the Netherlands. He soon established the Khan Research Laboratories (KRL) at Kahuta — a rival to the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) — and, within a decade, helped Pakistan develop the infrastructure for producing nuclear weapons. Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme surged ahead over the next decade, producing weapons-grade uranium by 1982, benefiting from a Chinese bomb design, and conducting cold tests in 1983-1984. By 1987, Khan boasted of Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities in an interview to Indian journalist Kuldip Nayar.
Khan also shared sensitive nuclear technologies with other countries, including through an office in Dubai, and manufacturing facilities in Malaysia, Turkey, and elsewhere. After 1987, Khan provided second-hand centrifuges, designs and components, and technical assistance to Iran. In the early 1990s, he offered assistance to Iraq through a London-based intermediary. Khan also provided North Korea with uranium enrichment information in exchange for accelerating assistance with missile technology, resulting in Pakistan’s Ghauri missile being derived from North Korea’s Nodong.
His proliferation network was finally caught red-handed in 2003 when Libya came clean to the United States (US) and United Kingdom, handing over drawings, blueprints, and technical instructions (including in Chinese) as well as centrifuge components in KRL boxes. After a stage-managed apology on television on February 4, 2004, Khan lived under effective but comfortable house arrest in Pakistan.
The notion that Khan operated a rogue proliferation network is useful fiction. Financial flows, public notices, and official recollections suggest widespread complicity among Pakistan’s military and civilian leadership when it came to proliferation activities. The military technology swap with North Korea certainly involved many more actors, and former army chief General Mirza Aslam Beg spoke openly of assisting Iran’s nuclear programme. But culpability for the AQ Khan proliferation network goes far beyond Pakistan.
Initially, Khan and Pakistan benefited from lax export controls, particularly in Europe. As early as 1976, Khan began to acquire sensitive components and knowhow from European sources — high-strength steel tubes from the Netherlands, high-vacuum valves from Switzerland, equipment for the removal of tritium from West Germany, and so on.
China also played an important role in Khan’s proliferation network. While Beijing provided a bomb design, fissile material, missile technology, ring magnets, and diagnostic instruments to help Pakistan’s nuclear programme between 1976 and the 1990s, Khan attempted to assist China with centrifuge technology. Khan claimed to have helped establish an enrichment facility in Hanzhong in Shaanxi in 1985, at a time when China was struggling with centrifuges. “We sent 135 C-130 planeloads of machines, inverters, valves, flow meters, pressure gauges,” he later recounted.
The US likely bears some responsibility, at the very least for dereliction. Because Pakistan was useful to Washington during the war in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and again after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, little more than modest attempts were made at cracking down on Pakistan’s nuclear development and proliferation activities for many years. But this situation became untenable. In 2002, US intelligence leaked evidence of Pakistan’s technology exchange with North Korea. In 2003, the International Atomic Energy Agency linked Pakistan to Iran’s enrichment facility at Natanz. That same year, Libya provided evidence of Khan’s proliferation in exchange for sanctions relief.
The irony is that Khan’s technological contributions were often failures. Iran abandoned Khan’s secondhand P-1 centrifuges because they proved faulty, while North Korea forsook that method, remaining reliant on plutonium. China continued its struggles with centrifuges in the 1980s until it received assistance from Russia. Libya’s efforts proved stillborn. Pakistan itself chose to rely increasingly on plutonium-based bombs and solid-fuelled missiles developed not by KRL but by its rival PAEC. Ultimately, it appears Khan wrecked the non-proliferation regime with substandard technology.
More significantly, Khan’s proliferation of nuclear technology exposed the cynicism and hypocrisy of non-proliferation efforts. In different ways, those who claimed to defend the non-proliferation order benefited as suppliers or destinations of Khan’s proliferation network, or chose to look the other way for their own political purposes. As long as he was alive, Khan held inconvenient secrets. Some his massive ego compelled him to blurt out. Others, with his demise, may never be fully revealed.
Dhruva Jaishankar is executive director of ORF America
The views expressed are personal