The Point of No Return

First Pakistan's A.Q. Khan showed that any country could have made a nuclear bomb. Then he showed—not once but three times—why the nuclear trade will never be shut down

See part one of this article: From Atlantic Unbound:

Interviews: "The World in Which We Live" (November 2005)
William Langewiesche discusses A.Q. Khan and the inevitability of nuclear proliferation.

"The Wrath of Khan" (November 2005)
How A. Q. Khan made Pakistan a nuclear power—and showed that the spread of atomic weapons can't be stopped. By William Langewiesche

By 1990 the mastermind behind Pakistan's nuclear bombs, Dr. Abdul Quadeer Khan, was living flamboyantly in Islamabad—indulged by Pakistan's military and civilian leaders; adored by the masses; ensconced in a multitude of luxurious houses; surrounded by bodyguards and sycophants; writing checks to schools, charities, and mosques; lecturing; and continuing to lead the large government laboratory that carried his name, in nearby Kahuta. In addition to running the 10,000 centrifuges and producing the highly enriched uranium necessary for Pakistan's nuclear arsenal, the laboratory had diversified into the design and production of other weapons, and was beginning to work on the problem of nuclear delivery by means of ballistic missiles. Pakistan, which had not yet tested its warheads, continued officially to deny the existence of a nuclear-weapons program, but its denials were sly and patently insincere, like parodies of diplomatic sophistication, not intended to be believed. Particularly since the successful showdown with India three years earlier, during which both Khan and the Pakistani president were alleged to have threatened their Hindu neighbors with annihilation, Khan had been freed from the need to be discreet. In public he had assumed the role he believed he deserved, no longer of just another refugee from the Partition, or of an arriviste in a land of the poor, but, rather, of Khan the Magnificent, a "brilliant scientist" who was wise and progressive, a patriot, and, indeed, the savior of Pakistan. Moreover, all Pakistan seemed to agree.

The fame had unbalanced him. He was subjected to a degree of public acclaim rarely seen in the West—an extreme close to idol worship, which made him hungry for more. Money seems never to have been his obsession, but it did play a role. The nuclear laboratory was nourished by a large and secret budget for which no accounting was required and from which Khan freely drew funds as if they were his own. One might expect that Khan's largesse would have triggered an investigation, but in Pakistan it did not. I have repeatedly asked people there if they ever wondered about the origins of Khan's wealth. One man close to the ruling military regime led by the current dictator, General Pervez Musharraf, tried recently to convince me that Khan's wife, Hendrina, came from a rich Dutch family, and that it was her money he was spending. But most people were straighter with me. They made it clear that my question was naive, and typical of an American abroad; they had not wondered about the origins of Khan's wealth because they had taken it as a given that he was skimming, like everyone else. A Pakistani parliamentarian made the point that some of the highest positions in the government today are held by people who are not merely corrupt and opportunistic but are the very icons of Pakistani criminality—people from families with a known history of murder, extortion, vote-rigging, smuggling, and fraud. He had once complained about this to Musharraf, who had advised him to be more realistic: Pakistan, Musharraf had said, is an imperfect society. The parliamentarian shrugged. Even the army is run like a real-estate racket, expropriating land from ordinary citizens and passing it on to officers for their personal gain. It is not by chance that Islamabad is a city of mansions, and that many of them are inhabited by retired generals. What was Khan's skimming compared with all that? And unlike the generals, who tended to lose every fight they provoked, Khan had delivered on his words.

Still, the idolization was excessive. I went to see another famous Pakistani who had received much of the same. He was Imran Khan, the Oxford-educated scion of a wealthy family, who had captained the greatest-ever Pakistani cricket team, had led it to multiple victories over the Indians, and in 1992 had capped his athletic career with a World Cup. The Subcontinent is so crazy for cricket that it essentially shuts down during important matches. Imran Khan, now fifty-three, is a tall and handsome man whose reputation for integrity—already strong—has been enhanced by his public denunciations of political corruption and by his founding of a large cancer hospital for the poor in Lahore. But that was not the point of my visit. Instead I wanted to talk to him about A. Q. Khan, and more generally about the nature of fame in Pakistan. I said, "It seems so extreme. I understand how important the atomic bomb is to Pakistan. It is important to any country that acquires it. But I'm still wondering what it is about Pakistan that such a cult could be made around one man."

He said, "You have to understand the psyche of the Subcontinent, and not just Pakistan. If you go to India, there is more idol worship there—the worshipping of 'stars'—than you will find anywhere else in the world. I was a Pakistani playing in India, but I've never had such adulation. I mean, in India everything is worshipped. They have idols for everything. Hinduism, you know."


"You will find Indian film stars—all of them—behaving like A. Q. Khan. It's not just the size of the crowds; it's their attitude. Their film stars are like demigods, literally. Any celebrity. Their number-one batsman, for instance: the way he is treated in India is just incredible."

"People want to touch him?"

"More! He would need security. The first time we toured India, even to cross the lobby of the hotel from the lift to the coffee shop we needed security guards. It was that sort of thing. The hotel was surrounded by thousands of people. We had never seen such a spectacle in our lives. And that culture is also in Pakistan—not to the same extent, because Islam challenges it, but don't forget that most people here were converts from Hinduism, and they have retained a lot of these qualities."

"And when you are on the receiving end? How do you keep perspective on yourself?"

He said, "People react so differently. I used to see, on the cricket team, boys coming up from poor backgrounds, and not well educated at all. When fame would hit them, some would not be able to handle it. It would destroy them. For instance, they would turn to alcohol, because that is the trapping of success in Pakistan: it is very expensive to drink alcohol. So they would get into this crowd that would want to be associated with them: the nouveau riche, the old rich, they would invite these boys. A lot of the players would lose balance, and think this was going to last forever. I think lack of education has a lot to do with it, because education allows you to stop living in a small world. What happens if you don't have an education and you get fame is that even in your own inner world you become oversized—this huge star."

"You studied history at Oxford?"

"And political science."

I said, "But A. Q. Khan was educated too."

He said, "Yes, so with A. Q. Khan I don't know. But when I was in England, I used to find that some people at the university who studied science, when they were outside their field they were quite silly—stupid, really. Whereas people who went into the arts or general fields like politics or history, they were much better socially. I remember this one nuclear scientist who was on our team, and I would wonder how he was ever going to function in life. He did well on his exams, and he even got a first, which is very rare at Oxford. But beyond that?" He laughed at the memory. He said, "I found Abdul Quadeer exactly the same. I remember we were once on a TV program together, in a panel of four or five people on a stage in front of a live audience of students. I heard him answering the questions, and I thought, 'This can't be the great Abdul Quadeer!' Because he sounded like a child, really. Someone in the audience stood up and said, 'You are so great, and I don't think you're getting the acknowledgment you deserve.' You know, he pandered to Abdul Quadeer. And instead of saying, 'Who in Pakistan has received more acknowledgment and fame?,' Abdul Quadeer said, 'Yes, you're right. No one bothers about me in this country.' And he went on and on. I was so surprised. Here was this man, in front of these kids, and he was really feeling sorry for himself. It was bizarre. I thought, 'What is going on here?'"

The convenient answer to that question now, years later, is that A. Q. Khan was running amok, that he was an addict of sorts, unable anymore to find sufficient gratification from his activities in Pakistan, and that unbeknownst to either the Pakistani authorities or the American government he was going rogue, selling his nuclear secrets abroad.

There are elements of truth in all that, as there are in most fiction. In Lahore I went to see a former finance minister named Mubashir Hasan, an engineer by training, who in his later years has become a pacifist and one of the rare critics of Pakistan's nuclear-weapons program. Hasan is a thin man with a gentle demeanor. On both days we met, at his ramshackle house in a leafy district of the city, he was dressed like a saint, entirely in white. We discussed the funding of Khan's laboratory over the years, and in general terms the extent to which Saudi Arabia and other countries had contributed to it. He said, "But if you want to find out exactly where the money came from, from what country, and in return for which state secrets, or how the accounts were kept, how much was taken out by which crooks—all that will remain secret for a long time. There is really no way of knowing."

I asked him how Khan could have gotten away with so much for so long. He said, "It is a cultural trait. The Western assumption that law should treat everyone the same way is no longer applicable in this country, in this culture. In Pakistan relationships exist only on an individual level, and as an individual I am entitled to forgive you or penalize you no matter what the law says. It is a feudal culture—or a degenerated feudal culture. That is why there is no law for the elites in Pakistan—why they do whatever they want to do. So your question of why nobody investigated A. Q. Khan? He must have had allies in high places who ignored his activities. You've given us the bomb. All power to you."

Presented by

William Langewiesche is a national correspondent for The Atlantic. This is the second of two reports about A. Q. Khan and nuclear proliferation. 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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