Islam's Dr Strangelove

PROFILE

6 June 1998


Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan has been called Pakistan's Einstein. CHRISTOPHER KREMMER in Islamabad profiles the scientist in charge of his country's nuclear weapons program.




HE has greying, steel-wool hair that looks as if it got frazzled in a science experiment, a pencil-thin moustache, and a grey safari suit which is about two sizes too small. Even his friends admit Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan looks slightly villainous.


The father of Pakistan's nuclear weapons program is a pleasant man, whose quick wit deflects the difficult questions with a degree of charm. If there is an obvious flaw, it is his vanity.


"I am one of the kindest persons in Pakistan," he says. "I feed birds. I feed ants in the morning. I feed monkeys that come down from the mountain."


He is also a convicted criminal in the Netherlands, where he studied the technology for enriching uranium to weapons-grade before allegedly skipping the country with a bagful of classified material. The 1983 conviction was overturned on a technicality two years later.


For the past two decades, Khan, 62, has held down a modestly paid job at the Kahuta Research Laboratory (actual name the "A. Q. Khan Research Laboratories"). Yet he lives in a plush bungalow with a superb vista of the electric-green Margalla Hills which form the backdrop to the modern Pakistan capital, Islamabad, and reportedly has an interest in the city's only nightclub, Hotshots.


Khan denies his work has been bankrolled to the exclusion of more important development projects.


"I've a very small portion of the national budget because, you know, the salaries here are very low . . . if it cost you $100 million to make a bomb in the US, it would cost you $10 million to $15 million here," he says.


From his balcony, the minarets of one of the world's largest mosques, built with the aid of Muslims worldwide, are visible. The starkly angular spires of the Faisal Mosque resemble missiles on a launch pad.


But Mountain View is only one of several places in which he stays. People talk darkly of security reasons.


"If they could, the Indians would have arranged an accident for Dr Khan long ago," says a devoted helper. "He's Pakistan's secret weapon - the only thing standing between New Delhi and total domination of this region."


Tall praise for a tall man, and a giant among his compatriots. But tall tales, too, grow around Khan.


His feats as a smuggler are the stuff of legend. Magnets, centrifuges and yellowcake have been the items in his shopping trolley.


But to allegations that he stole the components to assemble a nuclear weapon, Khan retorts: "Nothing was stolen. It was all bought on the open market. China had nothing to do with it."


According to local folklore, the people of Baluchistan in south-western Pakistan are best known for their fierce defiance of authority.


So it was appropriate that when Pakistan decided to thumb its nose at neighbouring India, the United Nations Security Council and the 149 nations which have promised never to test nuclear weapons again, it should do it in the rocky wastes of the Baluch tribal areas, where the blood feud rules.


The six explosions which raised so much dust that the region's black mountains turned white were the culmination of a 20-year clandestine operation which managed to bypass all existing treaties and laws banning the proliferation of nuclear weapons technology.


What kept Pakistan's nuclear wizards going all those years was an almost Baluch sense of defiance.


Since the tests, the Government of this Muslim country of 140 million people has been condemned around the world. But tell those wizards that nuclear weapons are unacceptable, and they'll ask why the Americans, Russians, Chinese, British and French have them? Argue that the existence of five nuclear-armed nations is a product of history, and they will counter that so are the new nuclear capabilities of India and Pakistan.


Question their ability to responsibly manage nuclear missiles, and they will wryly mention the Cuban missile crisis. Point out that economic growth is a better route to status and prosperity than military might, and your attention will be drawn to the East Asian financial meltdown.


It is difficult to underestimate the cockiness that a successful nuclear test can instil in your average Third World scientist, a class of person who has been frustrated and constrained for decades by lack of money, facilities, and political will.


The plight of the scientists became a magnified reflection of the plight of the nation as a whole, the symbol of a people who have never accepted that there are three worlds, and that theirs and their children's world, is at the bottom of the heap.


Khan belongs to the Partition generation. He was born in 1936 in Bhopal, about eight hours' drive south of New Delhi, but the ancestral home had to be left behind when the British divided their former Raj into a Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan. Those who suffered the experience are often embittered, scarred psychologically and politically.


His universities were Karachi, Delft in Holland and Leuvin in Belgium. In 1974, after India's first nuclear test at Pokharan in Rajasthan, he contacted Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, then Prime Minister of Pakistan, and volunteered to return home to build a centrifuge plant. Bhutto agreed. He started work in a collection of leaking huts, where his first crude centrifuge was fabricated, before moving to Kahuta, which was to become his personal fiefdom just outside Islamabad.


Five years later, the Prime Minister was executed by hanging on the orders of the dictator General Zia ul-Haq after a military coup. But even under martial law and military rule, with all political opposition crushed, Khan continued his work.


His ability to gain the confidence of political leaders across the spectrum, from General Zia to Benazir Bhutto, was legendary. All became converts to the nuclear cause, and all ensured that the government coffers remained fully open to Khan.


In 1982, General Zia announced: "We have the capability to enrich uranium." The news was greeted as a "miracle". There were reports at the time that US pressure had in fact forced Pakistan to stop enriching uranium. But this week Khan said: "If somebody was under the illusion that it was stopped, it was never stopped."


His personality cult - cultivated by public appearances with national sporting heroes such as squash champions Jansher and Jehangir Khan, and a string of national honours - inspired jealousy among his peers, most notably from successive heads of the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission.


It was a PAEC technician who pressed the button which detonated the pinnacle of Dr Khan's career, perhaps an expression that even in his moment of triumph, "Pakistan's Einstein" could still be pricked by petty rivalries.


In 1989, in an interview in which he insisted that his work at Kahuta was intended purely for developing nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, he was asked how he felt about being compared with the fictional nuclear madman Dr Strangelove.


"It does not bother me what the Western press says about me. They dislike our God, they dislike our prophet, they dislike our national leaders, and no wonder they dislike anybody who tries to put this country on an independent and self-reliant path," he replied.


Comments such as that have led to fears that Khan might be inclined to share the fruits of his efforts with brotherly Muslim countries, including Iran and Iraq. A document discovered in Iraq by UN weapons inspectors referred to "a proposal from Pakistani scientist Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan" offering help with uranium enrichment and nuclear weapons design, an offer never taken up by Baghdad.


In the past week, Khan has played down the "Islamic bomb" label attached by cheering Pakistanis and others to his progeny. He calls it a highly discriminatory and rather mischievous name.


In the case of both India's and Pakistan's recent tests, claims of multiple nuclear blasts were belied by seismic data indicating single explosions. There may be an element of bluff at work in the dangerous theatre of nuclear testing.


But whatever the precise nature of the explosions, they managed to record tremors measuring at least 4.7 on the Richter scale, proof enough for the experts that both India and Pakistan have gone nuclear. "There is no doubt left any more. The era of ambiguity is behind us," said Pakistan's Foreign Secretary, Shamshad Ahmad, after the final test.


Although the West may eventually succeed in putting a cap on India's and Pakistan's nuclear weapons arsenals, the knowledge gained from the recent tests is something that can never be taken away. "With the data available to us now, it will be easier for us to do computer simulations and not to do more tests, at least for the foreseeable future," said Khan, on his return to Islamabad from the Baluchistan test site last weekend.


The same scientists who built Pakistan's bomb are working on the missile systems which may one day deliver it. "I would say the missile we have is quite efficient, quite reliable, quite accurate," says Khan, who has been known to use a soccer ball as a model of the nuclear particle, and whose lecture hall blackboard is littered with calculus and hand-drawn sketches of mushroom clouds.


So confident was he about his Gauri ballistic missile - named after the first Afghan warrior to defeat a Hindu army - that he flew it over cities on its maiden voyage in April.


In July last year Pakistan tested the Hatf III missile, a clone of a Chinese M-9, and the first missile in Islamabad's quiver to have sufficient range to hit New Delhi. The Gauri can hit the south Indian capital of Chennai.


As the devices and cables for the nuclear tests were lowered into tunnels in the Chagai hills last week, an undisclosed number of Gauri missiles were deployed around the site to respond in the event of an Indian preemptive strike.


There were reports in 1995 that Beijing helped Pakistan to develop a nuclear reactor at Khushab to make plutonium, although Islamabad claims all its devices tested last month were boosted fission, which does not require plutonium.


As the world condemns India and Pakistan, their defiance of international opinion seems unlikely to dim- inish. "For the existing nuclear powers to condemn India and Pakistan for going nuclear is like a volcano telling a campfire it is too hot," said a Pakistan-based diplomat whose views do not reflect those of his government.


When President Clinton arrives this month in Beijing, he will be wined and dined by the very leadership which connived with Pakistan to develop the nuclear capability he so detests.


Yet Clinton has certified to Congress that China is not responsible for nuclear proliferation. There is a dark subtext to the rhetoric which has emanated from Washington in the aftermath of the dawning of South Asia's nuclear age.


Khan also moves easily between the shadows and the light. The murky, ambiguous and clandestine world of nuclear proliferation was his crucible, and remains his element.


-- Sydney Morning Herald