The Wrath of Khan

How A. Q. Khan made Pakistan a nuclear power—and showed that the spread of atomic weapons can't be stopped

Thirty-four years later it may seem obvious that the loss of Bangladesh was a blessing—but it is still not seen so today in Pakistan, and it was certainly not seen so at the time. The trauma was severe. The military regime fell, and Pakistan's greatest civilian leader—the democratically elected, populist, and some would say demagogic Zulfikar Ali Bhutto—assumed power. Bhutto was a visionary, and seems to have believed that he had been born to save the nation. The lessons he drew from the defeat were similar to those of almost all Pakistanis, and therefore probably to those of A. Q. Khan as well. Khan was still in Leuven, wrapping up his dissertation, but with a close eye on his homeland. Pakistan was engaging in a certain amount of introspection and self-criticism, but no sooner had the domestic purges occurred than the blame for Bangladesh shifted primarily to the outside. A fifth of Pakistan's territory and more than half of its population had been lost—and to crafty Hindus who now seemed certain to want to finish off the rest. To make matters worse, Pakistan in its time of need had been abandoned by its important allies, China and the United States, whose power had been checked by the Soviet Union, and whose nuclear arms had proved to be of no value at all. Only the Islamic nations had rallied to its side, but they were weak and disdained, and incapable of providing much beyond symbolic help. When all was said and done, twenty-four years after the Partition, Pakistan seemed to be in mortal danger, and quite obviously could rely on no one but itself.

What Khan may not have known, but Bhutto certainly did, was that India was well on its way to possessing nuclear weapons. The intention to acquire them apparently dated back to even before the Partition, when Jawaharlal Nehru, looking forward to independence, said, "I hope Indian scientists will use the atomic force for constructive purposes, but if India is threatened, she will inevitably try to defend herself by all means at her disposal." In the literature on nuclear proliferation today, positions are staked out to explain why nations choose to develop nuclear weapons. Is it because of external threat and strategic defense? International prestige and diplomatic power? Bureaucratic striving? Populism, nationalism, and the need to impress constituents on the streets? In India it seems to have been all of the above, with added emphasis on strategic defense after India's humiliating 1962 defeat by China and China's subsequent test of a nuclear weapon in 1964. India's program was pursued in semi-secret, closely linked to a public program of nuclear-power generation and partially masked by it: it would not use enriched uranium as the fuel for weapons but rather would use plutonium, a byproduct of nuclear reactors that can be extracted from their radioactive wastes. On the receiving end the difference between enriched uranium and plutonium would not matter: the former had been used against Hiroshima, the latter against Nagasaki, and either material suitably compressed in a few fission bombs could release enough energy to devastate Pakistan. Pakistan protested in capitals around the world, and asked for diplomatic intervention, but to no avail. Though the likelihood of an Indian nuclear military program was evident, no sanctions were imposed; and indeed, Canada, France, and the United States continued to help India with its nominally peaceful nuclear plans.

Pakistan had its own nuclear plans, though less well developed. In the 1950s President Dwight D. Eisenhower launched a since discredited program called Atoms for Peace, under which a benevolent United States, while ensuring world peace with its rapidly growing nuclear arsenal, would assist governments with technology and training in the development of nuclear-power generation—as if such capacities were unrelated to the development of atomic bombs. Pakistan answered with the creation of the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission, known as the PAEC, which initially had little interest in weapons, and to the extent that it progressed at all, did indeed concentrate on the possibilities for electric-power generation. By the mid-1960s, however, influential Pakistanis had begun to argue for nuclear deterrence against India. Bhutto, who was then the foreign minister, uttered the now famous remark that Pakistanis would eat grass if necessary, but they would have their bomb.

Given the desperate circumstances of Bhutto's subsequent rise to the national leadership, in 1971, it is not surprising that he set out almost immediately to make those dreams real. One month after the surrender of Pakistan's army in Bangladesh he called a secret meeting of about seventy Pakistani scientists under an awning on a lawn in a town in the Punjab. He asked them for a nuclear bomb, and they responded enthusiastically, promising delivery within an impossible five years. The largest obstacle, as usual, would be not with the design of a nuclear device but with the acquisition of the fissionable material to fuel it. At the meeting Bhutto placed responsibility for the weapons program with the PAEC, under an envoy to the IAEA named Munir Ahmed Khan. Munir Ahmed Khan was not related to A. Q. Khan, and would soon become his mortal enemy. Intending to exploit the radioactive waste from a small Canadian-built power reactor just coming on line, he set off, as the Indians had, on the path toward a plutonium bomb. Though Pakistan was not a signatory to international nonproliferation accords, the Canadians had required that their reactor be placed under IAEA controls: its fuel was to be accounted for before and after use, to verify that none was being diverted. Given his familiarity with the IAEA, Munir Ahmed Khan was not unduly concerned: presumably he believed that Pakistan could somehow secretly acquire additional nuclear fuel. His main need, therefore, was for a plutonium-extraction plant—a facility that the French eventually signed a contract to provide.

There is no evidence that A. Q. Khan was yet aware of the growing nuclear escalation on the Indian Subcontinent. But on May 18, 1974, an event occurred that left no room for doubt: beneath the desert of Rajasthan, near the Pakistani border, India detonated a fission device of roughly the same yield as the bomb that had destroyed Hiroshima. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was watching. The desert floor heaved, and a message of success was sent to the capital, New Delhi. It read, "The Buddha is smiling." India explained to the world that this had been a peaceful test, and asserted that a nuclear device is no more inherently threatening than any other explosive—that the character of a device depends on its intended use. The world was unconvinced, but did little in response.

Far away in Amsterdam, A. Q. Khan believed that the Buddha had smiled in anticipation of Pakistan's death. He had been working at FDO for two years, and with the access he had found to the URENCO centrifuge technology, he realized that by chance he was in a position to help Pakistan face the threat. Apparently on his own, he decided to take action. It is said that soon after the Indian test he sought out a couple of senior Pakistani engineers who were visiting Holland to buy a wind tunnel, but when he mentioned his background and expressed his desire to return to Pakistan to help develop its nuclear capabilities, they discouraged him, saying that his expertise would not be appreciated and he might not even be able to find a job. That particular story is typical of those Khan later told (with increasing rancor) to bolster his heroic self-image—Khan as the national savior, struggling against the complacency, if not outright treachery, of nearly everyone else—but the story is plausible enough, perhaps, to be true.

His next move was more aggressive. In the summer of 1974 he sent a letter to Prime Minister Bhutto, presenting his credentials, summarizing the purpose of centrifuges, and again volunteering to help. Bhutto responded through the embassy in The Hague. The two men met in Karachi in December of 1974, after Khan and his family arrived for a holiday. Khan argued for a Pakistani effort to enrich uranium—a route to the bomb that, he assured Bhutto, would be faster than Munir Ahmed Khan's pursuit of plutonium reprocessing, then under way. The plutonium project was troubled, because the Canadians had responded to the Indian test by beginning to withdraw their support for the Pakistani reactor they had built. Pakistan had expressed outrage, but could not escape the fact that Bhutto had effectively renewed his call for a bomb. Munir Ahmed Khan and his engineers at the PAEC believed that they could run the reactor without Canadian assistance, and they insisted that with the French extraction plant in the offing, Pakistan should stick with its original plan. Bhutto did not disagree, but he saw the advantage of mounting a parallel effort toward enriched uranium, and decided on the spot to place A. Q. Khan in charge.

And Khan was a self-starter. Even before the go-ahead from Bhutto, he had gotten to work. For sixteen fruitful days in the fall of 1974 he had stayed in Almelo on a special assignment to URENCO, where he had helped with the translation of secret centrifuge plans from German into Dutch, and in his spare time had walked freely through the buildings, taking copious notes—in Urdu. Some of the places he had visited were nominally off limits to him, but not once had he been challenged. A few people had asked him what his notes were about, and he had answered, half truthfully, that he was writing letters home.

With Bhutto's approval, Khan now returned to Amsterdam to gather more information. It was early 1975. He was thirty-eight years old, and much liked at FDO. As was his habit, he arrived at the lab with postcards, sweets, and other little presents for the staff. Despite the secrets held at FDO, the atmosphere there was even more open and relaxed than at URENCO, with no visible security and none of the culture of suspicion that governments might have wished to impose. One bin held discarded prototype centrifuge parts—components that were perhaps not quite within specifications—and employees were free to scavenge keepsakes from it to put on their desks. Either immediately before or after his trip to Pakistan, Khan began not merely to scavenge them but to take them home. Presumably, some of those components made their way to Pakistan's embassy, which had received instructions from Islamabad to help.

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William Langewiesche is a national correspondent for The Atlantic. More

"Enclosed are Two Pieces on Algeria." With those words, typed on plain white bond, William Langewiesche introduced himself to the editors of The Atlantic Monthly. Although neither piece quite stood on its own, the editors were drawn to the unusual grace and power of Langewiesche's writing and sent him on assignment to North Africa for a more ambitious piece of reporting. The result was the November 1991, cover story, "The World in Its Extreme"—his first article to appear in a general-interest magazine. (He had, however, written frequently for aviation magazines; he is a professional pilot and first sat at the controls of an airplane at the age of five.) Since that article, from which his book Sahara Unveiled: A Journey Across the Desert (1996) grew, Langewiesche has reported on a diversity of subjects and published four more books.

A large part of Mr. Langewiesche's reporting experience centers around the Middle East and the Islamic world. He has traveled widely throughout the Middle East and Northern Africa, reporting on such topics as the implementation of the shari'a in Sudan under Hassan al-Tarabi, North Africa's Islamic culture, and the American occupation of Iraq. Other recent assignments have taken him to Egypt, the Balkans, India, and Central and South America. In 2004 he won a National Magazine Award for excellence in reporting.

In 2002 his book American Ground: Unbuilding The World Trade Center was published. It is based on a series of three cover stories he wrote for The Atlantic as the only American reporter granted full access to the World Trade Center clean-up effort. His latest book, The Outlaw Sea: A World of Freedom, Chaos, and Crime, was published in May 2004.

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