By Siraj Wahab
Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, or simply Dr. A.Q. Khan, is known as the father of Pakistan’s atomic bomb. This Bhopal-born Pakistani physicist and metallurgist is seen as a role model and hero in the Islamic world for having given his country the ultimate weapon to defend itself against archrival India.
He faced a particularly harrowing and humiliating time during the military regime of Pervez Musharraf to the extent that in February 2004 he was forced to admit on national television that he was involved in proliferating nuclear know-how to Iran and North Korea.
In an in-depth interview in Urdu with veteran Pakistani journalist Mazhar Abbas, which was broadcast on the Dubai-based ARY Television in two parts in July 2010, the 74-year-old Dr. Khan talked in detail about the history of Pakistan’s atomic bomb, the trials and tribulations that he and his family endured and his relationships with various civilian leaders and military generals over the three decades that he has been at the helm of Pakistan’s atomic program.
He appeared relaxed and did not sound bitter. In fact, he was rather forthcoming in bringing interesting mysteries of the past into the light of the day. The interview was titled, Pakistan Ke Aetami Program Ki Kahani Us Ke Khaaliq Ki Zabani (“The History of Pakistan’s Atomic Program in the Words of Its Architect”).
In his introduction, Mazhar Abbas said though Dr. Khan is supposedly a free man as per the Pakistani court’s orders, there is still a huge security blanket around his residence in Islamabad. This prompted him to quote a meaningful couplet from a famous Pakistani poet Jaun Elia:
Ab Jo Rishton Me Bandha Hun To Khula Hai Mujh Par
Kab Parind Ud Nahi Sakte Hain Paron Ke Hote
Following are the excerpts from the interview:
Q: When did Pakistan’s atomic program start?
A: Pakistan’s quest for a nuclear weapon started on May 18, 1974. If you want to go a little further back, then it was Dec. 16, 1971. That was the darkest day in Pakistan’s history. Our forces had surrendered before the Indians in Dhaka. I was in Belgium in those days. I had completed my doctoral thesis and was waiting to defend my research before the team of scholars. It was a very, very sad day. I cried a lot that night. I didn’t eat for many days. I couldn’t come to terms with the fact that our army, in which we had so much faith, could be defeated and surrender in such a humiliating manner. However, as with all wounds, this wound too was healed but only physically. The mental scar remained forever, and the pain of that wound could never subside. When I got my PhD, I left Belgium for The Netherlands. There I got a job at one of the best companies that was involved in helping another firm enriching uranium through centrifuges. It was a dream job. At the time I never thought I would ever work on a project as prestigious as that in Pakistan. I always gave my best to whatever I did. I worked very hard on such projects. I did my homework diligently. I would make lots of notes. I used to study a lot. I was a happy man. Then suddenly, out of the blue, India conducted a nuclear test on May 18, 1974. The world was shaken. Pakistan was all the more shaken because we had not even recovered from the tragedy of 1971.
Q: What happened next?
A: I wrote a letter to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. ‘Our goose has literally been cooked,’ I wrote to the prime minister. ‘If we do not take appropriate steps, it is my fear that after 10 years Pakistan will not remain in whatever shape it has been left after 1971.’ I warned him that our country will be dismembered again and again. All the smaller states will become India’s satellites. ‘Please do something,’ I wrote and offered my services in exploring the nuclear option. ‘I have some experience in this field, and I can be of help.’ Bhutto immediately asked me to come down to Pakistan. In those years I would come to Pakistan every year during Christmas holidays to see my mother and my siblings in Karachi. I came down in December 1974 and met Bhutto. He told me about his government’s contact with a French company for the setting up of a fuel reprocessing plant. I told him frankly that whoever had given him the idea about the French plant was actually misleading him. ‘These people are trying to fool you,’ I told him. ‘If you are going to buy such a plant from France then all engineers working on the plant will be French nationals; they will be posted right here; and the plant will be under the constant supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency.’
Q: What was Bhutto’s reaction?
A: He was aghast. ‘I was given a different impression,’ he told me. ‘What is the way out?’ I, therefore, gave him an alternate blueprint to work on and assured him that I would be visiting Pakistan frequently to help out on the nuclear research. The next day he called Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) Chairman Munir Ahmad Khan and asked me to meet him. I met him and explained to him what all I had in my mind. However, very soon I realized that this task was beyond him. Munir Ahmad Khan was a mediocre electrical engineer from Lahore’s University of Engineering and Technology (UET). He had done a nine-month diploma course from North Carolina State Polytechnic. It was on the basis of this diploma that he became the chairman of PAEC. Moreover, he was the brother of one of Bhutto’s close political supporters. Anyway, I explained everything to Munir Ahmad Khan and then left Pakistan at the end of my vacation.
Q: When did you come back next?
A: I came back the next year. That was December 1975. I called on Bhutto, and he asked me to check out the nuclear program’s progress. I went to the PAEC field office in Rawalpindi. There was just one engineer. He was also like Munir Ahmad Khan and then there were some 10-12 technicians. They all seemed like working on a road construction project. I went back and told Bhutto what all I saw.
Q: What did Bhutto say?
A: He asked me about my itinerary. ‘I will back in The Netherlands in a couple of days at the end of my annual vacation.’ ‘No, you are not going back,’ Bhutto told me. My first reaction was one of shock. I was staying in Europe for 15 years. I had a very good and steady job. My employers had given me a cozy place in Amsterdam. I used to travel a lot for company work. I used to represent The Netherlands at the European Economic Community (EEC) meetings in Brussels. I also had huge offers of professorship from prestigious European universities. Since my father was a headmaster, I always had this fascination and desire to become a teacher. I seriously thought of becoming a professor. When Bhutto told me I am not going back, I was a little reluctant. I told Bhutto about my reluctance. ‘No, no, no, please, don’t go back. Our country is facing a grave crisis. You yourself have admitted this in your letter to me. It is a matter of our country’s survival,’ he told me. I said, ‘Let me go and seek my wife’s opinion.’
Q: What did she say?
A: She was shocked. She is Dutch herself, and her aging parents were in The Netherlands. She was the only child of her parents. ‘What are you saying?’ she exclaimed rather agitatedly. ‘We are only here to spend our vacation. You have got such a nice job. There are excellent educational facilities for our children.’ I listened to her persistent reasoning and at the end of the conversation, I told her, ‘OK, we are not staying here; we are going back.’ At that moment, she stopped me and said: ‘Hold on, let me get over this shock and let me swallow it and rethink about the whole proposal.’ Then came the key question. ‘Listen, you have never lied to me. You are an honest man, and I am proud of you. Tell me, if you stay back, will you be able to do anything good for Pakistan?’ I told her, ‘Honestly, nobody other than yours truly can do this job for Pakistan.’ ‘All right then, we are not going back.’ She has always been a great support. Even now during our worst phase during the Musharraf regime, she was there for me. Going back to 1975, it was decided that my wife would go back to The Netherlands and convince her parents about our decision to stay back in Pakistan and to bring back the school leaving certificates of our children.
Q: So you remained in Pakistan and she went back ….?
A: Yes. She came back two months later. That was a very difficult time for us. Far from the comforts of Europe, we had no decent place to live. Nor did we ask Bhutto out of modesty. I got down to work. There was one particular mechanical engineer. His name was Khokhar. He was a crackpot. He would fight with people. He, however, respected me, and I realized that he was very talented in his job. The two of us got down and started doing the blueprints. I got my first salary after six months. It was 3,000 rupees.
Q: Did you face any obstacles in between? There were reports that you and PAEC Chairman Munir Ahmad Khan had frequent run-ins?
A: I am a go-getter. I wasn’t used to paperwork and bureaucracy. The person I was reporting to, Munir Ahmad Khan, was not a scientist. He had a clerical mentality. I was getting frustrated, so I shot off a letter to Bhutto, saying: ‘I have come here to carry out a certain task. I cannot work with this man. Let me go back.’ I remember using very harsh language in that particular letter. I was angry. The very next day I got a phone call to meet Bhutto and his advisers in Lahore. ‘OK, we will remove Munir Ahmad Khan and make you the chairman of the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission,’ they suggested. ‘No,’ I said. ‘That would be a disaster; people in Europe know full well that I have worked on uranium enrichment in their countries, and my becoming PAEC chief will ring alarm bells in the corridors of power in Europe, and then they will create all kinds of obstacles.’ I told them to make anybody the PAEC chief, but let me have a free hand. They acceded to my request.
Q: Did anybody get wind of the project in the initial stages?
A: The Europeans got some hint. I will tell you how. In 1979, we placed an order for 100 inverters from a British firm called Emerson Electric. Just after we placed the order, the company’s employees went on strike demanding a pay hike. The member of Parliament who went to sort out the problem was told by the employees that the company had a huge order from Pakistan for inverters, and yet it was not giving them bonuses. The MP also happened to be a member of the British Atomic Energy Authority. He knew all the uses of inverters. He was the one who blew the whistle. And so there was a ban on the sale of inverters to Pakistan, but by then I had made alternate arrangements.
Q: When did the enrichment actually took place?
A: The big breakthrough came on April 6, 1978. That was the day we succeeded in running a centrifuge at almost 65,000 revolutions per minute (rpm), which is nearly 1,050 revolutions per second. To put gas into the centrifuge at that speed was a big achievement. I wrote to Ghulam Ishaq Khan, the close confidant of Gen. Ziaul Haq, that we tested the machine and that it was successful. ‘It is a first step on a long way,’ I wrote to him. ‘But it is a successful step.’ He immediately informed Gen. Zia who in turn wrote a letter to me, which I treasure even to this day. ‘Heartiest congratulations,’ it said. ‘See me immediately.’ I went to see him. He was delighted. ‘This is the greatest breakthrough,’ I repeated. By 1981, we started high enrichment. By 1982, we were enriching 50 percent. A little later, we started producing 90 percent enriched uranium. You need 90 percent enrichment for the bomb.
Q: It was during this time that you met Indian journalist Kuldip Nayar. There was a lot of controversy. Some said there was a slip of the tongue on your part? Was the meeting with Nayar designed to convey a message to the world that Pakistan had arrived on the world nuclear stage?
A: Kuldip Nayar was a friend of Mushahid Hussain, and Mushahid was a good friend of mine. Mushahid called me from the airport saying that a friend of his (he mentioned Kuldip Nayar’s name) had come from India and that the two of them were coming to see me. Mushahid said he wanted to drop his wedding invitation, as well. So he came along with Nayar. It was evening time ... a time when there is no domestic help at our home. So my wife made tea and prepared some snacks herself. We were having tea when Kuldip Nayar, a typical Indian sly fox, said, ‘I am from Sialkot and living on the other side, and you are from Bhopal and living on this side ... Partition was meaningless.’ ‘Hold on,’ I told him: ‘If Nehru and Gandhi had agreed then Quaid-e-Azam was the biggest backer of India’s unity. Shortsightedness and narrow-mindedness was from your side. This is the truth. You can read all the books in the world on the issue.’ ‘India is such a big country,’ said Nayar. ‘It is 10 times bigger than Pakistan. If you make 10 bombs, India will make 100 ….’ So I cut him short. ‘Don’t be under any illusion. There will now be no repeat of 1971. We have ensured 1971 will never happen to Pakistan again … By the way, you don’t need 100 bombs. You just need five bombs that you can use against our big cities, and they are not more than five. And even for us not more than five are required. We will break your back with them. If you can make 100, then we too are in a position to make five. Ye hamari chutki ka khel hai (It is very easy for us).’ He went back and made a lot of fuss about our conversation. There was no indiscretion on my part. I wanted to send across a message. I am aware of the Hindu mentality. I wanted to make it very plain to them. (The Khan-Nayar meeting took place on Jan. 27, 1987, and India carried out Operation Brasstacks exercises right on the Pakistani border in March that year.)
Q: Was there any pressure on you afterward suggesting that you should not have said what you said?
A: No, no, there was no pressure.
Q: When was Pakistan in a position to conduct a nuclear test?
A: By the end of 1984, we were in full position to conduct a proper test. On Dec. 10, 1984, I wrote a letter to Gen. Zia stating our preparedness to conduct a test. ‘This is a great piece of news,’ Gen. Zia told me after reading the letter. He hugged me and kissed me on the forehead. ‘There is nothing to worry anymore. I will let you know when to conduct the test.’
Q: Then why did it take so long to conduct it? From 1984 to 1998 is a long time, isn’t it?
A: We had the full intention of conducting a test in 1984. Our closest friends too suggested that we do it. Gen. Zia too was in full favor. As promised, Gen. Zia called me after two weeks for a meeting. ‘Our ties with America are good now. America is providing us with arms. Our army needs these weapons, and we are getting them. We have the bomb. We don’t really need to test it right way, do we?’ Those were Gen. Zia’s words. We agreed. So that is how we did not conduct the test then.
Q: You were closely associated with Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Did you try to intervene on his behalf with Gen. Zia to save him from the gallows?
A: Yes, we did our best. Thanks to my close relationship with Gen. Zia, I would take a lot of liberty with him. Let me narrate one incident to indicate our close relationship. Once in his presidential office he was munching on almonds in our presence. ‘You are eating all the almonds and getting all the strength ... We too are working hard, let us also have some,’ I told him in jest. He laughed out loud, pushing the silvery almond tray toward me. We were on very good terms. However, whenever I would talk about Bhutto’s case he would skillfully avoid the issue. He would just smile. I remember telling him about the repercussions of hanging Bhutto. I would cite the example of Turkey. ‘Look what happened in Turkey after the hanging of the deposed Prime Minister Adnan Menderes ... Such things lead to a vertical split in society.’ Gen. Zia would say nothing. Having drawn a blank from him, I took up the issue with UAE Foreign Minister Ahmad Al-Suwaidi. Our ambassador in the UAE then was Jamiluddin Hassan. He was an old friend of mine. He was the one who solemnized our marriage ceremony in the Pakistani Embassy in The Hague. Famous bureaucrat and writer Qudratullah Shahab was the ambassador at the time, and he was one of the witnesses to my marriage. Qudratullah Shahab was a very nice man. He was a gentleman; may God bless his soul. My friend Jamiluddin Hassan told me that the UAE ambassador was going to London and that it would be advisable for me to meet him there. I went to London. He told me Sheikh Zayed is Bhutto’s friend, and that he is doing his best. Then I thought maybe Turkey will be able to help us save Bhutto. Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit was a strong man. He was a friend of Pakistan, and so I went to Istanbul from London. From Istanbul I went to Ankara and went straight to the prime minister’s office. There was no appointment. At his office, I met a very senior officer and told him that it was very important for me to meet the prime minister. I showed him my diplomatic passport. He took me to Ecevit’s principal secretary. He told me Ecevit was very busy. ‘I need only four minutes with him,’ I told the principal secretary. I did meet Ecevit. He told me he was very worried for Pakistan. ‘We hanged Adnan Menderes, and we are still suffering. We are sending a parliamentary delegation in the next few days to Pakistan. It will do its best to save Bhutto from the gallows,’ he told me. However, Gen. Zia would tell everybody, ‘OK, we will look into it. We will reconsider.’ The truth, however, was he had decided much in advance to finish Bhutto. When Bhutto was hanged on April 4, 1979, it was a sad moment. It was not a good thing. We are still paying the price for that. If Gen. Zia had sent him into exile it would not have been such a festering wound.
Q: Gen. Zia died in plane crash in 1988. What was the nuclear scene during Benazir Bhutto’s first term as prime minister?
A: When Benazir came into power, things went on as they were. Americans were still clueless. Let me narrate an interesting incident. One of the top generals that I knew very well met me at the GHQ and said, ‘Doctor Sahab there is something important to discuss. Come over for a cup of tea.’ I went to him. He told me that the CIA station head in Islamabad had sent us a letter. He showed me the letter. ‘You had a major breakthrough,’ it said. ‘You think you could trick us. We have found out. Now you have started crossing the red lines. You are producing weapons grade uranium.’ This was in 1990-1991. I smiled sarcastically and told the general, ‘Mashallah, the American intelligence is very good! They didn’t know that we were doing this in 1980-1981, a full ten years earlier. We were already producing the core in 1983. If they knew that seven years later then all this means that all their intelligence is hoax. It is all cooked up.’
Q: There is this charge that the civilian leadership was not taken into confidence and that the nuclear program was strictly a military enterprise?
A: This is a totally baseless allegation. When Benazir took over, we met in the presence of President Ghulam Ishaq Khan. It was Benazir herself who said Ghulam Ishaq Khan should look after the nuclear program. But whenever the meeting on nuclear program would take place, Benazir used to be part of it. When the first meeting took place, Ghulam Ishaq Khan was there; Benazir was there; Army chief Gen. Mirza Aslam Beg was there. ‘What is the current position?’ Gen. Beg asked me. I told them all. This is the inventory. We made this many bombs; this many are under production — everything. Benazir looked at the details, and then wondered if whatever we had at the moment was enough for the purposes of deterrence. She said she wanted to apply the brakes on the nuclear enrichment for some time. ‘I am going to see the Americans soon, and I want to ask for aid,’ she said. ‘If we stop this then it will strengthen our case.’ Gen. Beg said, ‘Yes, it is OK. Our capability is fine at the moment. We can stop for some time. There is no problem.’ At the end of that meeting, Benazir suggested that we hold the enrichment to 5 percent. And so it was decided in principle to scale down the enrichment process. However, we, the nuclear scientists, were worried that if we stop the enrichment then restarting the whole process would be extremely difficult. I told my colleagues, ‘Listen, let us continue our work ... because if we stop now restarting this will be a gargantuan task. Let us just keep quiet. Nobody will ask us and we need not tell anybody. We will continue to enrich at our 90 percent capacity.’ And that is exactly what happened.
Q: Was there any personal conflict between you and Musharraf?
A: No, nothing. He is a very haughty man. Since he was a commando he was known for his brazen and brash style. You must have seen him the way he would talk and stand up with his hands on his hips and chest all pumped up ... Nobody around him had the guts to speak the truth to him. They were all hangers-on. The moment he took over, he called me and said: 'Nobody will go outside the country without my permission.' I told him: 'This has never happened before. From Day 1, we maintained a register. Every single detail was recorded: Where were we going? Who were we meeting? Why were we meeting? Where will we be staying? Who all would be going? And our contact numbers during our stay abroad. After coming back, I would always give a briefing.' The thing is before he usurped power, Musharraf had already sold his soul to the Americans. They had brainwashed him and asked him to check the nuclear program. Musharraf created a lot of obstacles for us. He held back crucial funds. He asked us to sever our ties with North Korea and Iran.
Q: Is it true that North Korea provided missiles to Pakistan during the war with India in Kargil in 1999?
A: Yes, I myself went to North Korea. They provided 200 shoulder-fired missiles. They didn’t even ask for money.
Q: What all was behind your televised confession during the proliferation crisis in February 2004?
A: Musharraf told me, ‘You are our hero. Just apologize. We will reinstate you immediately. If you don’t take this blame on yourself, this country will be destroyed. The UN Security Council will impose sanctions on us.’ I told them my appearance on television would only aggravate the situation. They thought otherwise; they thought it prudent to make an individual the sacrificial lamb. To me the whole thing was like lodging an FIR against your own self. I reminded them that we had not signed the nonproliferation treaty and therefore we were not bound to disclose anything ... I tried my best to make them see reason and to understand the folly of their idiocy, but everybody was power drunk. Us waqt har ek masti me tha.
Q: Did you consult your wife before going on television to read that confession?
A: No. They just took me from my home. I didn’t even know where they were taking me. A brigadier took me to Camp House which was Musharraf’s residence. Musharraf spoke to me for five-ten minutes. ‘This issue has become very complicated for us. The Americans are very upset. They will impose sanctions on us. You are our hero. We will rehabilitate you. Admit that you were responsible for all this proliferation.’ A couple of minutes later Makhdoom Ali Khan, the attorney general, took me aside and handed over a text. ‘This is what you have to read on television,’ he told me.
Q: What was your reaction?
A: After going through the text I told them you are blaming me for everything. ‘Ye to pura ka pura gandh mere upar hi daal rahen hain.’ There was stuff that did not happen at all. ‘This is not the truth,’ I protested. ‘Facts are quite the opposite.’ Anyway, I told Makhdoom Ali Khan, ‘OK, if you want me to read this, I will. However, I want you to insert one particular line: That my colleagues and I did all this in good faith.’ I wanted to convey a subtle message to the people through that ‘good faith’ line.
Q: What were your feelings then?
A: At the time, there was not much reaction. However, now I feel very angry thinking how low Musharraf could go in his dirty quest to retain power. He was sacrificing the hero of the nation to hold on to power. He was humiliating the savior of Pakistan. I literally saved Pakistan. When I reached home after the TV appearance, there were guards all around. Overnight they turned me into a prisoner. People will remember the incalculable damage Musharraf did to Pakistan. History will judge me and my contribution.
Q: You are every Pakistani’s hero. Who in Pakistan is or was your biggest hero?
A: The best ruler whose integrity and whose love for Pakistan could never be questioned was President Ghulam Ishaq Khan.
Q: And the biggest villain ...?
A: Pervez Musharraf.