South Asia is the nuclear flash point of the world. Before the end of the Cold War, the rivalry between America and the Soviet Union, both armed with thousands of powerful nuclear weapons, transfixed the world. When those countries rattled their sabers, as in the Cuban missile crisis, the world held its breath.
Now, ever since Pakistan followed India into the nuclear club, the world holds its breath at our every confrontation. This situation is much worse than the Cold War, which was fought at a distance, mostly by proxy. When your enemy is your neighbor, when you have fought open wars repeatedly, when you are in dispute over a large piece of territory, and when your historical memory is rooted in mutual slaughter from the founding of your nation, you face not a cold war, but a deadly embrace, with guns drawn and fingers on the triggers.
The nuclear status of this standoff was confirmed when India exploded five nuclear devices on May 11 and 13, 1998, and Pakistan responded in kind on May 28 and 30 with six nuclear devices. The world was shocked, far more so than in 1974, when India unilaterally exploded its first nuclear device. India described its test of 1974 as a “peaceful detonation,” and the world swallowed this explanation after some token show of disapproval. Yet that “peaceful” bomb initiated not only a nuclear arms race in south Asia but also nuclear terror, for the neighboring states experienced tremendous fear and anxiety.
The much stronger condemnation by the world in 1998 was surely because Pakistan was the first Muslim state to go nuclear. This is perceived in Pakistan as very unfair. Surely any state whose chief rival has the bomb would want to do what we did. After all, we knew we could not count on American protection alone.
Pakistan has always pursued a balance of power and forces with India. Deterrence demands it. Until 1974, this military balance involved conventional forces only. Once India went nuclear, our deterrent became untenable. We had to rectify this situation, come what may. Remember that this was only three years after the war of 1971, when India severed East Pakistan from us.
Ironically, the years between 1974 and 1998 were relatively peaceful along our border with India. We had fought bloody conflicts in 1947-1948, 1965, and 1971. During the twenty-four years of nuclear imbalance, we had continued to fight semi-wars, along the Line of Control in Kashmir and Siachen, but they were of much lower intensity Since 1998, although we haven’t approached anything comparable to the conflicts of 1965 and 1971, we have mobilized significant forces twice, in 1999 and 2002. It may be that our mutual deterrent has stopped us from plunging into full-scale war. We must never let a situ‑
ation reach the point of no return. We must resolve the dispute over Kashmir, for the sake of world peace.
In this chapter, I will explain how Pakistan achieved its nuclear status and then discuss the dangers of proliferation beyond our borders. Dr. A.Q. Khan, a metallurgist by profession, working in a uranium enrichment facility called URENCO in the Netherlands, offered his services to the government of Pakistan in 1975. He was asked to return to Pakistan. He brought drawings of centrifuges along with him. We assembled working centrifuges according to his blueprints at our nuclear enrichment facility. In the years that followed, we obtained all the other materials and technology we needed through an underground network based mainly in the developed countries of Europe. India was also developing its nuclear arsenal during these years. Perhaps we were both being supplied by the same network, the non-state proliferators.
Why did India acquire nuclear, and later missile, capability? Quite clearly, it had grandiose ambitions of projecting its power regionally and even globally and achieving hegemony over the Gulf and in south Asia and southeast Asia. Why did Pakistan opt to go nuclear? Quite obviously, and contrary to world opinion, we needed to defend ourselves against the Indian threat. India’s intentions were offensive and aggressive; ours were defensive. The world and its powers relentlessly pressured us to desist, without similarly pressuring India. I never found this logical; in fact, I always considered it unjust. If the world were serious about avoiding a nuclear arms race in the subcontinent, it was restraining the wrong horse. The great powers should have stopped India from going nuclear. Pakistan would never have done it if India hadn’t done it first. Instead, south Asia became the flash point of nuclear proliferation and black-market technology transfers..
Pakistan kept its nuclear program top-secret. In the 1970s the pro-gram was managed by Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was dealing directly with Dr. A.Q. an. Funds were placed at A.Q.’s disposal, no audits were carried out, and security was left to A.Q. himself Later, when President Zia ul-Haq took over, the same direct link was maintained between the president and the scientists. After Zia’s death in 1988, Ghulam Ishaq Khan took over as president. Since he was a civilian, he brought the army chief into the loop. From then on the chief of the army staff started managing our nuclear development on behalf of the president, dealing directly with A.Q.
This arrangement continued, but the chain lengthened. It ran from the prime minister to the army chief to a major general appointed as director general of combat development (DGCD), to whom A.Q. reported. No other government department was involved, nor was anyone else from the army. I say this about the army with full authority because I became the director general of military operations (DGMO) in 1992, an appointment that involved dealing with all sensitive military planning and operational matters, but I was kept totally out of the nuclear circuit. This was the right thing to do if the program had to remain under wraps. Everyone in Pakistan wanted us to have the bomb. A.Q. an was not, in fact, the sole scientist in charge of the entire effort, yet he had a great talent for self-promotion and publicity and led the public to believe that he was building the bomb almost single-handedly. Furthermore, our political leaders were intentionally ambiguous in public about our capabilities, for strategic reasons. I did not know the facts (at what stage of development we were); and as we would all discover, they didn’t either, thanks to the complete trust and
freedom of action given to A.Q. Nobody ever imagined how irresponsible and reckless he could be.
I took charge of the army as chief of the army staff on October 8, 1998. This was five months after we had conducted our first nuclear test, and by then A.Q. was a national hero. In May, he had instantly become the “father of the Islamic bomb” to our public and to the world-as if a bomb could have a religion. I find this description pejorative and offensive. No one else’s bomb is called Hindu, Jewish, Christian, capitalist, or communist, yet somehow our bomb becomes “Islamic,” as if that makes it illegitimate. The idea is illogical and essentially racist. This is an example of how Muslims continually feel unjustly singled out and alienated.
At any rate, A.Q. was now my responsibility. One of my very early recommendations to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was to bring our strategic organizations and nuclear development under custodial controls. We made a presentation to him at the GHQ, and I even submitted a written plan calling for a National Command Authority and a new secretariat within the government that would take charge of operational, financial, and security controls, which so far had been left to the discretion of A.Q. I had suggested this because I saw complete lack of coordination between the several scientific organizations involved, primarily the an Research Laboratories (KRL) and the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC). Unfortunately, the proposal remained unapproved and did not see the light of day during Nawaz Shard’s term in office.
Nevertheless, in early 1999 I decided to informally put in place, in at least a rudimentary version, the proposed secretariat of Strategic Plans Division (SPD) within the GHQ. By then the Combat Development Directorate had been wound up. Immediately, I started seeing the first signs of some suspicious activities by A.Q. Pakistan had contracted a government-to-government deal with North Korea for the purchase of conventional ballistic missiles, including transfer of technology for hard cash. It did not-repeat, not-involve any deal whatsoever for reverse transfer of nuclear technology, as some uninformed writers have speculated. I received a report suggesting that some North Korean nuclear experts, under the guise of missile engineers, had arrived at KRL and were being given secret briefings on centrifuges, including some visits to the plant. I took this very seriously. The chief of general staff, the director of our Intelligence Service, and I called A.Q. in for questioning. He immediately denied the charge. No further reports were received, but we remained apprehensive.
When I took the helm of the ship of state on October 12, 1999, I was solely in charge of all our strategic programs. I soon realized that I could not devote as much time to them as they required. I decided to implement the system that I had proposed earlier. In February 2000, our strategic weapons program came under formalized institutional control and thorough oversight, duly approved by my government.
At the top of the new structure was (and remains) the National Command Authority (NCA), comprising the president, the prime minister, key federal ministers, military chiefs, and senior scientists. This is the apex body responsible for all policy matters including the development and employment of our strategic assets.
A new secretariat called the Strategic Plans Division (SPD), under a director general from the army, assists the NCA in the implementation of plans and oversight of strategic assets. All financial and security controls for the scientific organizations were taken over by this secretariat.
Further, army, navy, and air force strategic force commands were created to handle all strategic assets in the field, while retaining centralized operational control with the NCA.
Two things happened as a result. First, we soon began to get some more information, though sketchy, about A.Q.’s hidden activities over the preceding months and years. Second, we were in a better position to learn about his ongoing activities, some of which were clearly problematic and potentially dangerous.
So far, he had been used to going abroad without permission. I now insisted that we should be informed of his visits and their purpose. Even then, I would learn that he had visited countries other than those he had requested.
We were once informed that a chartered aircraft going to North Korea for conventional missiles was also going to carry some “irregular” cargo on his behalf The source could not tell us exactly what the cargo was, but we were suspicious. We organized a discreet raid and searched the aircraft before its departure but unfortunately found nothing. Later,
we were told that A.Q.’s people had been tipped off and the suspected cargo had not been loaded.
On another occasion, I was informed that A.Q. had requested clearance of a chartered cargo flight coming from a third country to Islamabad, “including refueling stops both ways at Zahedan in Iran.” This raised suspicions again. When I asked why, I was told that some conventional artillery ammunition was being brought in. But that of course didn’t explain why the aircraft had to land in Iran “both ways.” I approved the ammunition but disallowed permission to land in Iran. Some days later, I was informed that the aircraft had never come to Pakistan after all. Evidently, the ammunition was probably a cover for something else.
There were other similar incidents, and I became reasonably convinced that A.Q. was up to mischief, which could be extremely detrimental to Pakistan’s security. Since A.Q.’s expertise was in nuclear weapons applications, the possibilities were frightening. Because he had been severely cautioned, and thereby alerted, he apparently became careful. He started taking steps that indicated he was trying to cover up some of his past activities.
It was becoming clearer by now that A.Q. was not “part of the problem” but “the problem” itself In his presence, we could never get a firm grip on KRL; the only way to do so was to remove him from his position. Therefore, in 2000 I decided in principle to retire him when his contract ended in March 2001. How to “manage” his retirement was the question. He was a hero to the man on the street. In the past, his contract had been renewed automatically on several occasions. This time I decided not to extend it. I did the same with the chairman of the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission, Dr. Ishfaq Ahmed, who was a highly respected, honorable, and capable senior scientist. The sad truth is that Ishfaq became a decoy to forestall the impression that A.Q. was being singled out. I felt sorry about Ishfaq because he still had much left to contribute. On March 30, 2001, Dr. A. Q. an was retired as chair-man of KRL, effectively cut off from his base. To soften the blow, I appointed him an adviser with the status of a federal minister. Practically, however, he had no further role to play in our weapons pro-gram. There were some adverse comments in the media, but then things calmed down and I was content with my decision.
When A.Q. departed, our scientific organizations started functioning smoothly, with mutual and integrated cooperation that had never been possible while he was around. He was such a self-centered and abrasive man that he could not be a team player. He did not want anyone to excel beyond him or steal the limelight on any occasion or on any subject related to our strategic program. He had a huge ego, and he knew the art of playing to the gallery and manipulating the media. All this made him a difficult person to deal with.
After 9/11, we were put under immense pressure by the United States regarding our nuclear and missile arsenal. The Americans’ concerns were based on two grounds. First, at this time they were not very sure of my job security, and they dreaded the possibility that an extremist successor government might get its hands on our strategic nuclear arsenal. Second, they doubted our ability to safeguard our assets and prevent them from falling into the hands of freelance extremist groups or organizations. I took pains to disprove both of these suspicions. I was sure of the nation’s support for me and my decision to join the coalition against terrorism. I was also sure of the efficacy of the custodial command and control system that we had instituted. I was concerned that A.Q. might have been involved in illicit activities before March 2001, but I strongly believed we had now ensured that he could not get away with anything more, and that once he was removed, the problem would stop. I was wrong. Apparently, he started working more vigorously through the Dubai branch of his network.
The concerns of the United States mounted. Every American official from the president down who spoke to me or visited Pakistan raised the issue of the safety of our nuclear arsenal. Colin Powell, whom I consider not only a friend but also a very balanced, clearheaded, able per-son, sought assurances from me. My response was that I had full confidence in Pakistan’s environment and our custodial control system. Still, at official-level meetings, some time after A.Q.’s retirement, the United States continued to raise questions about proliferation that had originated in Pakistan at some point in the past-but, like us, they had no concrete evidence. We kept denying the allegations, because we did not have any conclusive evidence; we had only suspicions.
Very significant and alarming revelations kept surfacing from 2002 onward, all having to do with A.Q.’s activities. The United States’ concerns were focused on North Korea. We denied the allegations again-again in good faith-and explained that we did cooperate somewhat with North Korea in the development of conventional weapons, but not at all in the nuclear weapons. This was absolutely true as far as the government of Pakistan was concerned. In late 2002, during official talks between the United States and North Korea, the Koreans disclosed that they had “even more sophisticated technology” (perhaps implying enrichment technology) of which the United States was unaware. The United States took this as a hint about centrifuge technology from Pakistan. The suspicion against Pakistan grew to such an extent that the U.S. government was obligated, in accordance with its laws, to impose sanctions against us. Such sanctions would have been disastrous for us. Fortunately, by this time I had developed a relationship with President Bush based on trust and common interests. President Bush imposed sanctions only on KRL, A.Q.’s institute. Nonetheless, the pressure on us to investigate A.Q.’s illicit nuclear transfers continued. We did try, covertly, to learn more, but we did not get anywhere.
Then came another bombshell. In the middle of 2003, during inspections in Iran by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), signs of nuclear proliferation surfaced when nuclear contamination at high levels was detected on the premises of Iranian facilities. In our minds, this immediately gave rise to the possibility of a link with A.Q. In my gut, I was getting more and more suspicious of him. I was convinced that we needed to get to the bottom of this, even if that implied a formal investigation.
Then came one of my most embarrassing moments. After I met with President Bush in September 2003 at the UN Summit, he drew me aside and asked me if I could spare some time the next morning for the CIA director, George Tenet. “It is extremely serious and very important from your point of view,” he said. I agreed.
Tenet arrived at my hotel suite the next morning. After initial pleasantries, he drew out some papers and placed them before me. I immediately recognized them as detailed drawings of Pakistan’s P-1 centrifuge, a version that we were no longer using but had developed in the early stages of our program under A.Q. The papers amounted to a blueprint, with part numbers, dates, signatures, etc. I did not know what to say. I have seldom found myself at a loss for words, but this time I was. My first thought went to my country-how to protect it from harm? My second thought was extreme anger toward A.Q.-he had endangered Pakistan. There could be no doubt that it was he who had been peddling our technology, even though Tenet did not say so and the papers did not include his name. His past behavior left me in no doubt. I pulled myself together and told Tenet that I would like to take the papers and start an investigation. He obliged. I must say that he showed complete trust and confidence in me. The trust that President Bush and his entire state department team had in me by this time was to prove our saving grace.
The whole ugly episode leaked out and blew straight into Pakistan’s face. Later, the IAEAs inspectors also detected some contamination in the centrifuges in Iran, which Iranian officials conveniently deflected to the “outside source” providing the centrifuges. Pakistan was all over the media. As if this were not enough, in late 2003 a ship named BBC China was seized in the Mediterranean carrying sensitive centrifuge components from Malaysia to Libya. The facility in Malaysia also turned out to have links to A.Q. Libya named Pakistan as its source for technology and centrifuges. We stood before the world as the illicit source of nuclear technology for some of the world’s most dangerous regimes. I had to move quickly and decisively to stop any further activity and to find out exactly what had happened.
We launched our investigations in early November 2003. Revelations began to flow. Our investigations revealed that A.Q. had started his activities as far back as 1987, primarily with Iran. In 1994-1995 A.Q. had ordered the manufacture of 200 P-1 centrifuges that had been discarded by Pakistan in the mid-1980s. These had been dispatched to Dubai for onward distribution. Overall, the picture that emerged was not pretty: A.Q. was running a personal underground network of technology transfers around the world from his base in Dubai.
One branch of his network was based at KRL. It included four to six scientists out of the thousands working there. Most of them proved to be unwitting participants, working on A.Q.’s orders without comprehending the real purpose or outcome.
The other branch of the network was based in Dubai and dealt with procurement and distribution. It included several shady individuals and various European businesses.
On the basis of the thorough probe that we conducted in 2003-2004, and on the basis of the information that has since been collected (and fully and truthfully shared with the IAEA and international intelligence agencies), I can say with confidence that neither the Pakistan Army nor any of the past governments of Pakistan was ever involved or had any knowledge of A.Q.’s proliferation activities. The show was completely and entirely A.Q.’s, and he did it all for money. He simply lost sight of the national interest that he had done so much to protect. Contrary to some perceptions, he is no fall guy for anyone. There is absolutely no evidence to the contrary.
The unearthing of A.Q.’s involvement in nuclear proliferation was perhaps one of the most serious and saddest crises that I have ever faced. The West in general and United States in particular wanted his scalp, but to the people of Pakistan he was a hero, a household name, and the father of Pakistan’s pride-its atom bomb. The truth is that he was just a metallurgist, responsible for only one link in the complex chain of nuclear development. But he had managed to build himself up into Albert Einstein and J. Robert Oppenheimer rolled into one.
Perceptions are sometimes far more important than facts. I had to act fast to satisfy international concerns and yet also avoid inflaming the masses of Pakistan in support of their hero. Sadly, our opposition par-ties were more interested in attacking me over this scandal than in displaying unity at a time of national sadness and adversity.
I assured the world that the proliferation was a one-man act and that neither the government of Pakistan nor the army was involved. This was the truth, and I could speak forcefully. The more difficult issue, however, was to avoid an open trial of A.Q. The public would be sure to protest any prosecution, no matter what the facts were. I needed a solution that would be accepted by all.
I wanted to meet A.Q. myself and talk to him. When we met and I confronted him with the evidence, he broke down and admitted that he felt extremely guilty He asked me for an official pardon. I told him that his apology should be to the people of Pakistan and he should seek his
pardon from them directly. It was decided that the best course of action would be for him to appear on television and apologize personally to the nation for embarrassing and traumatizing it in front of the entire world. I then accepted his request for a pardon from trial but put him under protective custody for further investigation and also for his own sake.
Since then, we have isolated A.Q. and confined him to his house, primarily for his own security, and interrogated him at great length. We have learned many details of his activities, which we have shared truth-fully with international intelligence agencies and the IAEA. They have proved extremely helpful in dismantling the network, internationally and in Pakistan.
There is little doubt that A.Q. was the central figure in the proliferation network, but he was assisted over the years by a number of money-seeking freelancers from other countries, mostly in Europe, in manufacturing, procuring, and distributing to countries like Iran and Libya materials and components related to centrifuge technology. According to A.Q., these people included nationals of Switzerland, Holland, Britain, and Sri Lanka. Several of these individuals based in Dubai and Europe were simultaneously also pursuing their own business agendas independently. Ironically, the network based in Dubai had employed several Indians, some of whom have since vanished. There is a strong probability that the Indian uranium enrichment pro-gram may also have its roots in the Dubai-based network and could be a copy of the Pakistani centrifuge design. This has also been recently alluded to by an eminent American nonproliferation analyst.
In his interactions with the Libyans, A.Q. suggested that they should build centrifuge plants that would look like goat and camel farms and sheds. He went on to convince them that such camouflage was fairly easy to create. Interestingly, because A.Q. knew full well that Libya had a very weak technological base, the components of centrifuges, less the all-important rotors, were arranged through various sources, while the Libyans were asked to develop rotors themselves. Under this arrangement, while the Libyans purchased a lot of equipment and everybody in the network benefited, they would not have been able to operate a centrifuge plant, as they could not have made the rotors indigenously. The deal with Libya is estimated to be in the region of $100 million. The recklessness of A.Q. can be gauged from the discovery in Libya of a nuclear weapons design provided by him in the shopping bag of a tailor based in Islamabad.
Doctor A. Q. an transferred nearly two dozen P-1 and P-II centrifuges to North Korea. He also provided North Korea with a flow meter, some special oils for centrifuges, and coaching on centrifuge technology, including visits to top-secret centrifuge plants. To the Iranians and Libyans, through Dubai, he provided nearly eighteen tons of materials, including centrifuges, components, and drawings. All this information has been shared with concerned international agencies.
When, in November 2003, we started our investigations into A.Q.’s proliferation activities, our intelligence agencies intercepted two letters written by him. The first was being carried by a courier, a business partner of his; and in the letter A.Q. advised some of his friends in Iran not to mention his name under any circumstances to the IAEA. He also advised them to name dead people during investigations, just as he was naming dead people in Pakistan. Naively, he also suggested that the Iranians should put the blame for the contamination found in Iran on IAEA’s inspectors, “who could have spread it surreptitiously.” He recommended that Iran renounce the NPT and finally promised more assistance after this event had passed.
The second letter was addressed by him to his daughter, who lives in London. The letter, besides being critical of the government for the invesigation, contained detailed instructions for her to go public on Pakistan’s nuclear secrets through certain British journalists.
For years, A.Q.’s lavish lifestyle and tales of his wealth, properties, corrupt practices, and financial magnanimity at state expense were generally all too well known in Islamabad’s social and government circles. However, these were largely ignored by the governments of the day, in the larger interest of the sensitive and important work that he was engaged in. In hindsight, that neglect was apparently a serious mistake.