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

And concentrate he did. In the face of increasing export controls in the 1990s, Khan expanded his global procurement network and took it largely underground. At Kahuta he continued to improve the centrifuge plant, to tweak the laboratory's warhead designs, and to develop an alternative ballistic missile to one being built by the PAEC. He also led the laboratory into the design and manufacture of a variety of conventional weapons, including surface-to-air missiles, anti-tank weapons, multi-barrel rocket launchers, laser range-finders, laser sights, reactive armor, minesweeping charges, and armor-piercing tank rounds. On the civilian side Kahuta launched into the manufacture of electronic circuits, industrial switches and power supplies, and compressors for window-mounted air-conditioners. In 1992 it even established a Biomedical and Genetic-Engineering Division. Furthermore, it began to hold seminars and conferences on topics related to the experience of enriching uranium, including six International Symposia on Advanced Materials; two International Symposia on Mechanical Vibrations; the International Conference on Phase Transformations; three Vacuum Courses, some in cooperation with the Pakistan Vacuum Society; and, finally, every bomb-builder's favorite, the National Conference on Vibrations in Rotating Machinery.

In other words, Khan was going great guns. And he was having fun. Pakistan's nuclear position remained officially ambiguous, but once the American sanctions had been imposed, Khan was freer to praise himself for what he had done. Word filtered through the streets until even ordinary people knew of this grand man, and some recognized him as he whisked by in his cavalcades, surrounded by loyalists and guards. Medals and awards were showered upon him, and every one of them he counted, and every one, he felt, was justified. Ultimately he received six honorary doctoral degrees, forty-five gold medals, three gold crowns, and, twice, the Nishan-i-Imtiaz, Pakistan's highest civilian award. He played his fame for what it was worth. This was the era when he began to buy houses and luxury cars, and to go around bestowing grants on hospitals, mosques, and schools. He shared his wisdom openly, on many public occasions. He sat on the governing boards of more than two dozen universities and institutes. He was personable, charming, and sometimes apparently humble—though in the way politicians can be, without being humble at all. When people visited him at his office, he gave them pictures of himself. When those people were reporters, he allowed them to fawn.

REPORTER: You seem to be very fond of learning different languages. In fact, you appear to be almost a linguist. In how many languages have you attained proficiency, and how? Any comments on this rather strange blend of being an exceptionally brilliant scientist and a linguist? KHAN: I know a few languages. First of all, Urdu is my mother tongue. Then after the Partition I had to learn Hindi, which I still can read and write. Later on I learned some Persian. When I went to Europe, I learned German and Dutch. I know both languages quite well. While in Europe I also took some lessons in French. And of course English has been my second language all these years. I wish I could learn Russian and Chinese, but I couldn't find the time. REPORTER: Do you have any hobbies, and how do you relax after a strenuous day? KHAN: I used to go fishing, fly kites, and play hockey in my young days. Then I played volleyball at university. Now it is so difficult to do these things. I do some walking, and play with our dogs and cats. It is very relaxing. I also read quite a bit. We go to bed very late, usually after midnight, as my wife is also always doing something, knitting, reading, etc. REPORTER: Thank you, Dr. A. Q. Khan.

On two days in May of 1998 India broke a twenty-four-year hiatus and tested five atomic bombs—the largest of which was claimed to be a thermonuclear (fusion) device with a temporarily dialed-down yield of forty-three kilotons, roughly three times that of Little Boy, which took out Hiroshima. Independent analysts expressed skepticism about the stated size and nature of the explosions, but these were technical quibbles of little importance compared with the new political reality of an India that wanted to make such a show of its earth-shattering might. Just a few weeks earlier Khan's laboratory had successfully fired its new intermediate-range missile (a North Korean derivative dubbed the Ghauri) on a maiden 500-mile flight, and Khan had followed up with his typical saber-rattling and bluster. Flown to its full 1,000-mile range, his missile, carrying his bomb, could devastate Mumbai, Delhi, and a slew of other Indian cities, including Bhopal (perhaps occasioning bittersweet satisfaction). The missile's flight, however, does not seem to have played heavily into the Indians' decision to test—in part because of their tendency to view Khan as a bigmouth and a buffoon. In fact, physical preparations in India had been under way for a month, and the decision to proceed was made for domestic political reasons by the insecure leaders of the governing Hindu Nationalist Party, the BJP, who wanted to impress the masses with their strength. Sure enough, after the tests there was widespread jubilation on the streets. The celebrants ignored the possibility that the next time a nuclear weapon was ignited in India, it might be dropping in from Pakistan and vaporizing them.

In Pakistan the Indian tests were seen as a direct threat. Special attention was paid to an overexcited Indian home minister named L. K. Advani, who declared that Islamabad would have to submit to this reality, particularly as it affected the dispute over Kashmir, and that Indian troops would henceforth chase Kashmiri insurgents in "hot pursuit" right back across the border into Pakistan. So much for the sobering effect of atomic bombs. As part of the package, the Indian press was full of taunts, challenging the Pakistanis to show, if they could, that their nuclear arsenal was anything more than a bluff. Either way the Indians figured to gain: if the Pakistanis did not now test a nuclear device, they would demonstrate their weakness, with delicious consequences for the local balance of power; if they did test, and successfully, they would join India as a target of international sanctions, and would suffer disproportionately because of their greater dependence on the charity of the world. The Pakistanis knew they were in a bind. They had weapons ready to go, and had prepared a test site years before by boring a horizontal tunnel into the center of a desert mountain, in a remote district called Chagai, in the southwestern province of Baluchistan. However, they were getting clear warnings that if they answered India in kind, they would lose not merely direct American aid, which had slowly been increasing since the last cutoff, but also the large infusions of cash from other donor nations and international lending organizations that were keeping Pakistan's economy alive. A rare public debate broke out among Pakistani elites, during which a "peace faction" urged the country's leaders to assume the moral high ground and let India take the heat alone. The soon-to-be-deposed prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, accepted repeated calls from Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, who urged the same. Sharif hoped for positive inducements—solid security guarantees and financial payoffs—and some were promised. Public sentiment, however, was overwhelmingly in favor of a test, as was sentiment within the army—Pakistan's real center of power. After several weeks of hesitation the logic of the Subcontinent prevailed, and Sharif decided to proceed.

On the night of May 27, 1998, just hours before the scheduled test, word was received from Saudi intelligence that Israeli fighters, flying on behalf of India (of course), were inbound to take out Pakistan's nuclear facilities—specifically the laboratory at Kahuta and the test site in Chagai. Pakistan scrambled its own fighters and rolled its missiles out of their shelters in preparation to launch. Months later Khan gave an interview in which he was alleged to have said that at Kahuta that night nuclear weapons were loaded into the Ghauris—a statement he subsequently denied, and which for technical reasons seems dubious. In any case, the Indians responded immediately by preparing their own aircraft and missiles, and for a few hours the countries came close, perhaps, to a nuclear exchange. Had this occurred, it would have been just the sort of reflexive slaughter that people fear—particularly from countries like Pakistan, with insecure political and military institutions, primitive commandandcontrol systems, inadequate information sources, and ultra-short windows for response to their nuclear neighbors. But on the night of May 27, at least, the leaders of Pakistan had the sense to hesitate and pick up their phones. The United States and other nations assured them that they were safe, the Israeli attack never materialized, and May 28 dawned normally for the residents of the great cities on both sides of the border.

That afternoon a small group of Pakistanis associated with the weapons program, including, of course, A. Q. Khan, gathered in a concrete bunker in Chagai, facing the chosen mountain seven miles away. Pakistan later reported that five nuclear bombs had been placed inside the test tunnel where it hooked sharply, 800 feet beneath the mountain's peak. The bombs were fission devices, based on either the Kahuta or the PAEC's design, or both, and containing highly enriched uranium—though a remote possibility exists that a plutonium device was among those tested. The details remain secret. One bomb was said to be large, and four to be small. They were wired to detonate simultaneously—a practical arrangement that has led, however, to endless disputes about how many were actually involved. The official number of five was intended to match India's test exactly—with the special surprise of a sixth bomb tested elsewhere two days later, to one-up the score. The tunnel was sealed with heavy concrete plugs. At 3:15 p.m. a PAEC technician directly under Samar Mubarakmand, the leader of the test site, pushed the button, saying "Allah-o-Akbar!"—"God is great." After a delay of thirty-five seconds (during which, it is said, some observers prayed) the mountain heaved, shrouding itself in dust. The command post rocked. When the dust settled, the mountain's color had turned to white. In announcing the news Pakistan claimed a total yield that roughly equaled India's, of course, because if it was to be a response in kind, the numbers had to match. Independent analysts downgraded the actual yield by a factor of three—but so what? As far away as Cairo people danced in the streets.

Khan posed for pictures with the mountain behind him. He looked more subdued than pleased. It should have been his moment, the apogee of his life, and an occasion for the entire nation to praise his name. Khan-o-Akbar, people could have said; Islam has its bomb, and Pakistan is saved. Indeed, people did give him thanks, and over the next few years, by external appearance, he rose to new heights of glory and fame. But he was beginning to face serious troubles now—political forces that ultimately would lead to his arrest and disgrace—and a small but clear warning was being sent to him on that day. Control of the test had been pointedly awarded to the treacherous—no, traitorous—PAEC. Munir Ahmed Khan was seven years retired by then, but the institutional rivalry had not eased. Now this Samar Mubarakmand—a PAEC flunky, a carpetbagger, a twit—had been parachuted in to lead the site. It was Mubarakmand who had been given the honor of orchestrating the event. And Khan had been allowed to visit as a "courtesy."

This treatment continued after Khan flew back to Islamabad. There was no official delegation to greet him. That welcome was reserved for Mubarakmand, who arrived later, and was met by the prime minister and a cheering crowd of hundreds. Khan, in contrast, was met by a small group of friends from the Kahuta plant, who waited for him in the "VVIP lounge," and then drove with him to his house for tea with Henny. Khan looked haggard, perhaps because the near nuclear war had kept him up the night before, but more likely because of the frustrations of the day. Either way, he was not his normal irrepressible self. One of his companions at the tea recently told me that out of concern he had asked Khan what was going on, and that Khan had not responded. It was a shock, he said, because for once Khan had seemed uncertain.

But looking back now, seven years later, the answer can be known. In Pakistan people understand more than they will ever admit out loud. There are cultural understandings about what goes on, houses on the shores of Rawalpindi's drinking supply. Pakistan had its bomb, and it was a good thing, but the utility of Khan was almost over. He was a genuine patriot, much to be admired, but too strong for anyone's good anymore. If he had become a monster, as some said, then some in the government and the army were implicated too. Was he out of control? For the moment he just needed to be reined in, and reminded that he was just one among a number of important men. Khan's activities were if anything about to expand. But it was only 1998, and there was no thought yet that he would have to be destroyed.

This is the first of two articles about A. Q. Khan and the spread of nuclear technology.

Presented by

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.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


A Miniature 1950s Utopia

A reclusive artist built this idealized suburb to grapple with his painful childhood memories.


Why Principals Matter

Nadia Lopez didn't think anybody cared about her school. Then the Internet heard her story.


A History of Contraception

In the 16th century, men used linen condoms laced shut with ribbons.


'A Music That Has No End'

In Spain, a flamenco guitarist hustles to make a modest living.
More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In