Patriot, pariah, Pakistani: The legend of AQ Khan and Pakistan's nuclear programme

Pakistani men release pigeons for nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan (in portrait) during a rally in Karachi [Getty Images]
8 min read
20 October, 2021

In a final showing of character, Abdul Qadeer (AQ) Khan made sure his funeral was planned out with meticulous detail.   

Handwritten on time-stamped, headed paper, the Indian Subcontinent’s own “Dr Strangelove” contacted Professor Dr Muhammad Al-Ghazali – a sitting judge on Pakistan’s Supreme Court – with instructions of how he wished his Salat Al-Janazah, or funeral prayer, to be performed:

“You are required to lead my funeral prayers (at H.8 graveyard). If it is a holiday, then preferably after Zuhr prayer at Faisal Mosque. If it is a working day, then preferably after Asr prayer at Faisal Mosque. Thank you and God bless you.”

Naturally, Khan’s deathbed foresight will only contribute to his already folkloric persona back home. After all, AQ Khan – one of the founders of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb - helped his country achieve its most remarkable, if perilous, achievement to date.

Yet, as is so often the case with those that Pakistan chooses to venerate, any semblance of national fervour would be quickly drowned out by a sea of international condemnation.

"Khan's passing reminds us of a period of unprecedented turbulence, and his legacy will encourage both the best and worst elements of the Pakistani psyche to linger on"

Obituaries have since characterised AQ Khan as “the most dangerous man in the world”, “the world’s biggest nuclear proliferator”, and a “rogue scientist”, remembered by the West as the global architect of a clandestine nuclear proliferation network.

Such polarising characterisations should only add to the reasons why AQ Khan warrants careful investigation. Khan’s passing reminds us of a period of unprecedented turbulence, and his legacy will encourage both the best and worst elements of the Pakistani psyche to linger on.

So, who was AQ Khan? How instrumental was he really in the facilitation of Pakistan’s nuclear programme? And how worried should we be about Pakistan and its nefarious capabilities that we are constantly reminded of?  

Regional fissures: The race for the bomb

No one born in the Indian Subcontinent during the mid-half of the 20th century can be said to have had a “normal” upbringing. The collapse of Britain’s empire swiftly led to the intergenerational trauma of Partition, as relatively harmonious communities would become perpetually entangled in rivalry. The four wars of 1948, 1965, 1971, and 1999 between India and Pakistan are but a surface-level testament to this.

AQ Khan was no exception. Born in Bhopal in what was then British India, Khan was left in India to complete primary education whilst his brothers and wider family migrated to newly formed Pakistan. Five years later in 1952, the resurfacing of sectarian violence between Muslims and Hindus in Madhya Pradesh would compel him to emigrate as a Muhajir.

A Q Khan is remembered back in Pakistan as "Mohsin-E-Pakistan" - Saviour of Pakistan, for his role in acquiring nuclear weapons [Getty Images]
AQ Khan is remembered in Pakistan as "Mohsin-E-Pakistan", or "Saviour of Pakistan", for his role in acquiring nuclear weapons for the state [Getty Images]

It is worth remembering that a large part of the Pakistan movement was predicated upon preventing the Muslim community of India from being isolated from political representation, given an overwhelmingly Hindu majority. AQ Khan experiencing marginalisation in India, coupled with Pakistan's inherent paranoia, became instrumental in shaping his subsequent nationalism.

By the time that AQ Khan had finished his doctorate in Berlin, fears between the two adversaries had deepened. It was well believed that since the mid-1960s, India had been seeking nuclear capabilities as a result of the 1962 Sino-Indian war and their own emotive and strategic rivalry.

In response, Pakistan’s pursuit of its own nuclear programme should be contextualised as part of a wider arms race in South Asia. India attempting to reach hard power equilibrium with China meant it was nigh-on impossible to reach an agreed balance between India and Pakistan.

Pakistan’s justification for nuclear weapons, therefore, became “exactly the same reason NATO needed the bomb during the Cold War, when surrounded by Russian tank forces threatening Europe”.

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Threat pre-emption and perception is therefore the underlying incentive of Pakistan’s strategic culture, which also reinforces its status as a national security state. Since its inception, Pakistan’s armed forces have penetrated into every level of society, including that of state-building and decision making. This inherent link and an overriding focus on security are what led Pakistan to pursue nuclear deterrence.

'We should have to eat grass and get one, or buy one of our own!'

It was equally easy to find political figures who would provide legitimacy to the project. In fact, any Pakistani who did not want to get the bomb would be, as a senior retired general told Professor Anatol Leiven, “either a complete fool or a traitor”.

In particular, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was instrumental in founding and facilitating Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme. Inspired by the impact of the United States’ “Trinity” test on the global balance of power, Bhutto quickly understood that Pakistan needed to prevent “nuclear blackmail”.

In his 1969 book The Myth of Independence, then-President Bhutto would write: “If Pakistan restricts or suspends her nuclear deterrence, it would not only enable India to blackmail Pakistan with her nuclear advantage, but would impose a crippling limitation on the development of Pakistan’s science and technology…our problem in its essence is how to obtain such a weapon in time before the crisis begun”.

"Threat pre-emption and perception is the underlying incentive of Pakistan's strategic culture, which also reinforces its status as a national security state"

Within this environment, scientific figures like AQ Khan were not exceptionally jingoistic in their attitude towards acquiring nuclear capabilities, but rather part of concerted top-down efforts to reach Nash equilibrium between the two states, thus preventing “hegemony over the subcontinent”.  

The disastrous defeat in the 1971 Indo-Pakistani War – which led to the creation of Bangladesh out of East Pakistan - as well as India’s ‘Smiling Buddha’ nuclear tests, would only intensify impetus.  

By this time, Pakistan had already established the Pakistan Atomic Energy Committee as a federal body to facilitate nuclear energy, with its subsequent militarisation becoming a key nucleus for future projects. In 1976, the secretive Kahuta Research Facility was created - under the directorship of AQ Khan - to acquire and process uranium enrichment. The two organisations would covertly work together with the aim of producing fissile material by 1978, with highly enriched uranium achieved by 1985.

At Kahuta, Khan was part of a wider team that included nuclear physicists Munir Ahmed Khan, Ishfaq Ahmed and later Nobel Prize winner Abdus Salam, but it was AQ Khan who spearheaded attempts to speed up their work, relying upon his contacts from his time working at the URENCO uranium enrichment plant in the Netherlands to smuggle in, and subsequently export nuclear technology, in particular uranium hexafluoride.

For most, this is where the timeline of AQ Khan begins.

After the leaking of the "Nuclear Proliferation Scandal" to the international press, President Pervez Musharraf would order his former advisor A Q Khan to confess to his involvement [Getty Images]
After the leaking of the "Nuclear Proliferation Scandal" in 2004, President Pervez Musharraf ordered his former advisor AQ Khan to confess to his involvement in ringleading a global proliferation network [Getty Images]

The AQ Khan network, 9/11, the War on Terror

On paper, the accusations are damning. Since as far back as the mid-1970s, AQ Khan is accused of fronting an export network that provided knowledge on uranium enrichment and weapons design, as well as centrifugation technology, creating the most advanced black-market network of nuclear proliferation ever built.

Infamous countries that are believed to have profited from AQ Khan's network are Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea and Saudi Arabia. Hafez Al-Assad’s Syria and Mubarak’s Egypt are also believed to have inquired.  

Once fully matured, the network would comprise several main “nodes” including the UAE - which served as the company’s headquarters - Malaysia, Turkey, and South Africa. Bruno Tertrais of the Institut Montaigne would later claim that 50 people were actively involved in the network, but it was largely centred around Khan and a dozen or so close associates.

In this sense, AQ Khan did play an integral role in acquiring and bartering with states labelled rogue by Washington. This status would bulge post-9/11 where particular links with Libya and Iran naturally played into the narrative of malevolent forces within global Islam.

"Infamous countries who are believed to have profited from AQ Khan's network are Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea and Saudi Arabia. Hafez Al-Assad's Syria and Mubarak's Egypt are also believed to have inquired"

But AQ Khan wasn’t an Islamist, he was a secular Pakistani nationalist. He was, as best described by Shuja Nawaz, a “part brilliant and hard-working scientist, part patriot, and partly self-serving, publicity-seeking egomaniac”.

So, in parroting Professor Anatol Leiven once again, whilst AQ Khan certainly profited, he wasn’t a “rogue” element within the Pakistani infrastructure. By and large, everyone – including the Americans – knew what he was doing, and whilst they may not have approved at every level, they persisted in turning a blind eye.  

For their part, the United States shielded the network for fear of exposing the relationship between itself and Pakistan’s multi-layered and complex civilian-military establishment. Yet, because Khan and Pakistan were ultimately always in the driving seat, US state fears were, and always have been, significantly less than those portrayed by the media.

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Despite Pakistan clearly being the most volatile of the 9 countries with nuclear weapons, it remains more likely that a jolted movement from the United States is what causes a cataclysmic outcome in Pakistan. The continued inability of the United States to understand Pakistan's often unintelligible plans may lead to the United States using its military to force a result. This will lead to what the United States fear the most: Pakistan's nuclear weapons being leaked to malevolent non-state actors.

In reality, this will only ever happen if the US conducts military action, which will have the antithetical effect of bringing about the radicalisation of Pakistan's army - and thus state infrastructure. AQ Khan, despite his condemnable outreach programme, would have had negligible influence on this decision process. 

Un-loveable rogue

In 2004, Khan would later confess to his actions in a highly publicised press conference. Compelled by then-President Musharraf and the shifting US requirements and attitudes towards Pakistan, Khan – in typically blasé fashion – stated that this confession was his second act of saving Pakistan, first with the bomb and second by not revealing the true extent of his exploits and international business partners.

So, with such diverging accounts of his life finally coming to a close, AQ Khan should be remembered as perhaps the closest metaphor of Pakistan that we have: difficult to contain, and even harder to predict.  With Pakistan, both in sickness or in health, we must continue to expect the unexpected.

Benjamin Ashraf is a non-visiting research fellow at the University of Jordan's Department of International Studies and a researcher at the University of Jordan's Center for Strategic Studies. He is also part of The New Arab's Editorial Team.