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

West Germany, however, did not. Thirty years had elapsed since World War II, the German economy was strong, and the government had embarked on an ambitious program of energy self-sufficiency, which was to be achieved largely through nuclear-power generation. Germany had joined the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1970, but from the start it had been concerned almost exclusively with the provisions that promoted the rights of member states to acquire peaceful nuclear technology. In practice the German government did not rigorously differentiate between countries that were member states and countries that were not. In the mid-1970s it entered into a major nuclear deal with Brazil, which had not joined the treaty but agreed in this case to accept IAEA safeguards as if it had. Such safeguards were weak, and everyone knew it. Nonetheless, Germany was going to sell Brazil no fewer than eight nuclear reactors, a uranium-enrichment plant, a fuel-fabrication plant, and plutonium-reprocessing facilities. Presumably the centrifuges would be of the same urenco design that A. Q. Khan was stealing for Pakistan at that very time. U.S. officials were angry, because they had indications that Brazil was secretly seeking a bomb. (So was Argentina, which had rejected the NonProliferation Treaty as "the disarmament of the disarmed.") But when the Americans took their concerns to Bonn, the Germans reacted skeptically, and said they would proceed with the deal. In Bonn an inside observer recently said to me, "The Americans said, 'Hey, wait a minute! This is what we can show you.' And they showed the Germans a little bit of information. Apparently it was just enough to persuade the Germans that they were off the reservation." The Germans gave in and reluctantly let the Brazilian contracts drift. Fifteen years later both Brazil and Argentina, for domestic political reasons, formally renounced their nuclear-weapons ambitions.

But the Germans were increasingly restive. Reflecting a sentiment that was organic and widespread in Europe, they resented the disproportionate power of the United States, and suspected the Americans of wanting to use nonproliferation to corner the free-world market in nuclear fuels. The founding of urenco was an act of resistance to such perceived domination. Moreover, resentment toward the United States was greatest not among the national policymakers, who could sometimes be swayed, but deep within European bureaucracies, among the ordinary diplomats and officials who transacted the daily business of government and were largely immune to American pressure. It was on that level—or lower—that the Pakistani purchasing network operated, and that the American attempts to stop Khan failed. The patterns were repetitive. Whenever American intelligence discovered that one company or another was about to export devices to Khan, U.S. officials would pass the information along in writing to their European counterparts in the expectation that the activity could be stopped. In some cases the Europeans refused to act because the sales were unambiguously legal. In many others interpretation would have been possible, and with sufficient commitment and energy the companies could have been approached and warned off. Instead, the Europeans closed ranks. Their attitude toward the Americans was them against us. The reports were slid into drawers, and the drawers were slid shut.

In Islamabad, A. Q. Khan was riding high. Such was the perceived importance of his work that he seemed safe from the political dangers even of Pakistan. His mentor Zulfikar Bhutto was overthrown in 1977, and later hanged, but the new dictator, General Zia ul Haq, proved to be just as committed to the bomb. By cutting off foreign aid for a year starting in September of 1977, the United States tried forcing Zia to cancel the French plutonium plan, but the effect was only to heighten Pakistan's nuclear resolve. People don't like being pushed around. In April of 1979 the United States tried for a second time, suspending aid because of Pakistan's nuclear activities—but only eight months later, on Christmas Day, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, and suddenly it seemed to Washington that more-important issues were at stake. Aid was resumed and nuclear nonproliferation quietly de-emphasized, as over the following decade Pakistan bled the Soviets on behalf of the United States. Much has been written about the folly of that tradeoff—and certainly the wisdom of the Afghan war will be argued for years to come—but the truth is that nothing the United States had done or could feasibly do was going to keep Pakistan from arming.

Khan, for one, never doubted his success. As long as he was granted autonomy and the budget he demanded, he was going to build the bomb. It is believed that as early as 1978 he may have had a prototype centrifuge running, and have been able to show some increase in the concentration of the isotope U-235. Three years later, in 1981, the production plant at Kahuta was ready to start up, and with such promise that General Zia renamed it the Khan Research Laboratories. This was the sort of gesture that made Khan inordinately proud. The work continued. There were difficulties with balancing the centrifuges, and with earthquakes and floods, but in just a few years Kahuta would probably have 10,000 centrifuges in place, and already a good number of them were linked and running. Around 1982 the plant achieved the first weapons-grade uranium, enriched to 90 percent or more; by 1984 it was producing enough fissionable material to build several bombs a year. Nor had Khan neglected the need for a warhead: his was an implosion device, based on a simple Chinese design, with an enriched-uranium core the size of a soccer ball surrounded by a symmetrical array of high explosives wired to a high-voltage switch to be triggered all at once. Soon he was going to work on a missile, too.

He had a problem, however, and it was poisoning his soul. Despite his repeated attempts to discredit Munir Ahmed Khan and his staff, the PAEC was still officially heading up Pakistan's nuclear-weapons program. They were going to restart their quest for plutonium reprocessing, which if successful would diminish the importance of Kahuta. Worse, they were already working on a missile, and they were developing their own warhead—one so similar to Kahuta's that Khan believed they had stolen his design. Khan fought back with transparent emotion, and increasingly in public. His surrogate Zahid Malik, for instance, published this description of Munir Ahmed Khan:

Although some of his loyal friends rank him as a good administrator (or a shrewd manipulator), nobody accepts him as a good scientist. He lacks moral values and is very devious. He can even be cruel where his personal interests are concerned. According to the authors of "The Islamic Bomb," Dr. I. H. Usmani had declared Munir Ahmed Khan a liar and a selfish person who disgraced Pakistan internationally by his conspiracies. According to these authors, he is a treacherous fellow, and time has also shown that he not only cheated Mr. Bhutto but also created a lot of problems for Pakistan in the development of nuclear power and capability. Mr. Goldschmidt, Director General of the French Atomic Energy Commission, said, "I never trusted anything Munir Khan said. He could lie while being charming. I never believed a word that he said."

The leaders of Pakistan must have smiled at such crude denunciations. The rivalry between the two groups suited them well. They heaped praise on A. Q. Khan, and allowed him to become wealthy. But they kept stringing him along.

Khan knew it, too, but apparently could not help himself. His ego was inflamed. He had developed such a need for power and recognition that there was little room for anyone else. It was frustrating to him that the weapons work at Kahuta was supposed to be secret: he could not shout to the world quite as loudly as he would have liked. In his interviews and speeches, which were increasingly frequent and long, he had a way of insisting that uranium was being enriched to only 3.5 percent, and purely for peaceful purposes, but then letting his pride get the best of him and proceeding at length to discuss the logic and technology of nuclear weapons. The pattern was strange. In part it stemmed from a deliberate position of nuclear ambiguity, similar to the Israeli choice to neither confirm nor deny; but to the extent that Khan kept talking and talking, it also reflected his personal needs. He was poor at keeping secrets, because he acted too clever when he lied. He was too eager to claim credit. His denials were not intended to be believed. What he seemed to be saying was We have the bomb, and because of me.

By 1986 Pakistan had crossed the threshold, and was able to fabricate several nuclear devices. Within a few months it put its new strength to use. Toward the end of the year India mounted a large military exercise on the plains along Pakistan's borders. The exercise was dubbed Brasstacks, as in "getting down to …" Pakistan responded by mobilizing its own troops, moving the two countries again toward war, and then apparently issued a veiled nuclear warning. It took the form of an interview that Khan gave to a freelance Indian reporter at his house in Islamabad in January of 1987, during which, according to the reporter, he reiterated earlier boasts that Pakistan had succeeded in enriching uranium to weapons-grade levels, and added, "Nobody can undo Pakistan, or take us for granted … And let me be clear that we shall use the bomb if our existence is threatened." Publication of the story was delayed for several weeks while the reporter shopped it around, diminishing its immediate effect—and Khan later denied having said any such thing, accusing the reporter of being a typical Hindu hack. But in India a message had been received nonetheless, and it would resonate for years to come. There may have been other messages as well. Despite subsequent Pakistani denials, the Indians claimed they had been threatened in Islamabad, through diplomatic channels. Moreover, at the time when the opposing armies stood face-to-face along the border, and India was contemplating a pre-emptive strike, General Zia flew to an Indian-Pakistani cricket match in India, where he sat beside Rajiv Gandhi and, it is alleged, at one point leaned over and said, "If your forces cross our border by an inch, we are going to annihilate your cities." Whether or not he spoke those words, India soon withdrew its army. And by the time the crisis was over, whatever warnings had or had not been sent, somehow Pakistan had emerged as a nuclear-weapons state.

Zia died in a mysterious airplane crash in 1988, and Pakistan entered a decade of political turbulence during which it endured various corrupt and incompetent governments, generally with the army holding real power in the background. For a while the White House continued to certify, as it had since the start of the proxy war in Afghanistan, that Pakistan was nuclear-weapons free. Maintaining that fiction was an annual requirement for providing Pakistan with financial aid. But after the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, in 1989, the fiction no longer seemed necessary, and with concerns about nuclear proliferation again predominating, American aid was cut off. The cutoff saved U.S. taxpayers some money, but of course it was sapped of moral weight by America's own nuclear stance, and in Pakistan, as usual, it failed to achieve the desired results. For Khan the sanctions were a point of pride. He had never been particularly religious, but his position was increasingly Muslim and hard-line. A Pakistani general asked him if he minded the descriptions of him in the West as an evil Dr. Strangelove, and Khan answered accurately enough: "They dislike our God. They dislike our Prophet. They dislike our national leaders. And no wonder they dislike anybody who tries to put his country on an independent and self-reliant path. As long as I am sure that I am doing a good job for my country, I will ignore all such insinuations, and concentrate on my work."

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"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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