The World in Which We Live

William Langewiesche on nuclear proliferation—and why the U.S. is powerless to stop it.

For those of us who grew up in the 1980s, the threat of nuclear war loomed large. Nightmares were fueled by mushroom clouds and mutually assured destruction, and in our imaginations, a single finger hovered over a red button—the hair trigger separating existence and annihilation. In a sense, though, the Cold War made our understanding of things simple; it was us versus them. But in fact the world was already far more complex and dangerous than we could have imagined.

In The Atlantic's November cover story, "The Wrath of Khan," the first of two articles, William Langewiesche delves into the complex world of nuclear powers, one in which a few select countries harbor thousands of nuclear weapons and efforts to prevent the spread of these weapons to the rest of the world have become paramount. Langewiesche focuses on Dr. Abdul Quadeer Khan, the father of the Pakistani atomic bomb and the mastermind behind what amounted to an international underground nuclear-weapons superstore.

Khan, Langewiesche writes, would be forever shaped by his childhood in India and the birth of Pakistan. Pakistan was formed in 1947 when, because of violence between Indian Hindus and Muslims, a border was drawn to separate it from India. Pakistan became a refuge for Muslim Indians such as Khan, who made it his adopted home as a teen in 1952. The border, however, also formalized the religious hatred—and tensions between the two nations escalated throughout the second half of the twentieth century.

Though Khan's youth coincided with Pakistan's tumultuous first years, the nationalism that that imbued in him didn't become apparent until much later in his life. As a young man, he instead focused his energy on science. His schooling took him abroad and he eventually settled in Amsterdam, where he worked in a lab as an engineer on centrifuges, machines used to enrich uranium for use in nuclear-power reactors. By 1972, Khan had access to top-secret information. But at that time, Langewiesche writes, "even he did not yet know what was soon to be on his mind."

Then, in 1974, India tested its first atomic weapon. "The desert floor heaved, and a message of success was sent to the capital, New Delhi. It read, 'The Buddha is smiling.'"

In response to India's nuclear test, Langewiesche writes, Khan almost immediately became embroiled in Pakistan's quest. "Far away in Amsterdam, A. Q. Kahn believed that the Buddha had smiled in anticipation of Pakistan's death... Apparently on his own, he decided to take action." Khan started a one-man espionage program in Amsterdam that eventually led to a full-fledged weapons lab in Pakistan. By 1986, Pakistan had developed its first nuclear bomb.

Pakistan had started its quest for a nuclear weapon before Khan got involved. In 1971, President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto called on Pakistani scientists to build a bomb. He knew India's nuclear efforts were already underway. Russia and several Western states had stockpiles of nuclear warheads, and Israel likely had a few, too. Bhutto had once "resentfully mentioned Christian, Jewish, Hindu, and Communist bombs," writes Langewiesche, and "the possibility therefore existed that a Pakistani device would amount to more than a counterbalance to India—that it would be handled as a 'Muslim' bomb to be spread around."

This possibility flew in the face of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), an international pact in which countries agree to use nuclear power for peaceful purposes only. Those countries already possessing nuclear weapons, the so-called "club of five" comprising the U.S., Britain, France, China, and Russia, agree that they will, someday, disarm. Though the treaty has been effective at limiting nuclear proliferation, many non-nuclear-weapons states resent being excluded from the club. Several, including India, Pakistan, and Israel, have never signed.

Yet despite Pakistan's resentment of the NPT, regional concerns were the primary motivation for its nuclear-weapons program. After years of intimidation, Pakistan wanted to show India its muscle. In 1998, Pakistan detonated its first nuclear-weapons test in a bunker 800 feet below the Ras Koh mountain range in western Pakistan. The Muslim world was jubilant: "As far away as Cairo people danced in the streets," writes Langewiesche.

This test was merely the beginning. Khan's weapons program evolved into a weapons-technology-supply network. He found willing partners in Europe and South America to supply equipment and sold his nuclear know-how to Libya, Iran, and North Korea. Once U.S. agents exposed the network, Pakistan isolated Khan in his home in Islamabad and forbade him from communicating with the outside world. Both Khan's network and his subsequent isolation, writes Langewiesche, foil the nuclear containment efforts of the West:

The [U.S.] intelligence services would like to debrief him, because of the likelihood that much of the network he established remains alive worldwide, and that by its very nature—loose unstructured, technically specialized, determinedly amoral—it is both resilient and mutable, and can resume its activities when the opportunity arises, as it inevitably will.

Despite Khan's isolation, Langewiesche manages to piece together a layered, almost Cubist portrait:

He has been portrayed in the West as a twisted character, an evil scientist, a purveyor of death. He had certainly lost perspective on himself. But the truth is that he was a good husband and father and friend, and he gave large gifts because in essence he was an openhearted and charitable man.

As with the spread of nuclear weapons, the story of Khan, in Langewiesche's telling, is one of gray areas and inevitabilities.

We spoke by telephone on September 19.

Elizabeth Dougherty

Your descriptions of Khan and his life are incredibly detailed, even though he's been in isolation for over a year. What lengths did you have to go through to dig up some of these details?

I talked to many people who either knew him or followed his career closely. I spent quite a bit of time in Pakistan. He is totally off limits not only to me and to other writers but to Western intelligence operatives. For political reasons he's being kept in strict, strict isolation. With a character like this you can work around the edges, and learn a lot, and then verify what you've learned. Together it becomes quite good information.

You learned some of Khan's life story—for example, details of his move from India to Pakistan—from one of his personal friends.

That story was both written about and told to me by a Pakistani journalist who was Khan's scribe for many years. Khan surrounded himself with people—he held court—and this guy was one of them. He has turned against Khan, like many others, out of self-preservation. If you're in a position of power in Pakistan now you don't want to be openly supporting Khan or criticizing the military regime, which is the regime that has imprisoned Khan and is keeping him in isolation. This friend of Khan's, with Khan's approval, wrote a biography of him. It's a horrible book, but it contains some good information.

You mean it's horribly written?

It's off the scale. I keep finding books that I think are the world's worst book. When I was reading this I was thinking, This has got to be the world's worst book. It's unbelievably bad.

I've been told you got a firsthand look at Khan's house on the lake in Rawalpindi.

I took a boat out, in fact several boats, and went cruising by his place because I was curious. I had heard about this house. It's a famous house because it was in violation of all the laws. I wanted to see it and I wanted to see the neighbors.

You talk in the article about Fritz Veerman, Khan's officemate in Amsterdam in 1975. Could you tell me more about him? I can imagine that he must have been terrified and confused when he finally realized that Khan was a spy. Do you think that, at the time, he could have imagined how far Khan would go?

No, because Khan himself didn't realize it. Nobody imagined that Khan was going into the selling business. As far as acquiring nuclear weapons for Pakistan, Veerman knew it at the time. It wasn't hard to know—everybody knew it. The people involved in Europe—the ones selling components to Pakistan—knew very well that Pakistan was on the road to producing a nuclear bomb. There was a feeling inside of Europe, which was a vestige of old colonial thinking, that these guys are not competent enough. The feeling was, We can sell them the equipment, but they're not going to be able to pull it together. We're going to make a profit and they're just suckers. Well, they are plenty competent enough, as are all people in the world. With varying degrees of assistance, the competency can be found if a country really wants it badly enough. It can be found, it can be bought, it is there.

If it weren't for Khan, would Pakistan have developed nuclear weapons anyway?

Yeah, sure. Khan was just very aggressive. He was very effective. He was a great organizer and manager. People say he's a great scientist and a brilliant scientist. But it wasn't science that mattered, it was management. He was highly energetic and had an unlimited budget. That helped, but had it not been for him it would have been someone else.

What motivated Khan? Do you think he was driven by greed and power or was it an allegiance to Pakistan?

I am sure that what motivated Khan was patriotism and hatred of India. He was concerned about the survival of Pakistan. We know that he launched into this effort to build a bomb for Pakistan in direct reaction to the Indian test explosion of the so-called "Smiling Buddha." He was definitely motivated by patriotic concerns and geopolitical thinking, probably correct geopolitical thinking. It was helpful and probably even necessary for Pakistan to acquire nuclear weapons, up until the time when there's an actual nuclear exchange and everybody dies.

But short of that, short of the use of nuclear weapons, the acquisition of nuclear weapons has been a good thing for the entire region. It's like dominoes, the falling and toppling each other. Given that the Indians had acquired a nuclear bomb and were certainly hostile towards Pakistan, and given that India had sent their military into East Pakistan, which was becoming Bangladesh, given these factors, that's what motivated Khan.

What happened after that, however, I'm writing about in the second piece. Khan did not have the necessary historical education, or maybe the necessary psychology, to handle the power and fame that was thrust upon him. He fell whole-hog into it. He quickly learned to love fame, to need it, and to revel in it. He was a big spender, and not just on himself. He was giving money out left and right. He was a philanthropist and he liked big fancy houses and nice cars and entourages and living the good life. He liked his place in Dubai. He liked luxury.

With the initial motivations of patriotic and geopolitical concerns, there were also personal aspects that intruded. One did not exclude the other, it became a whole mix of them working together to define Khan.

Many of the people you spoke with seem to think that Khan was a very nice guy, but at one point you suggest that all along he may have been "something of a sociopath." What makes you suggest that?

Well, he had two sides to his personality. I think he was and is a very nice guy. But there was this other side of him that was very bitter, much of which was a political bitterness. His feeling was, "You people have double standards. We are not your little brown people anymore. We will defend ourselves. You retain the right to have nuclear weapons. Who are you to tell us that we can't?" Much of his bitterness came from the double standard implicit in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

And increasingly he was personally bitter about the sort of people he perceived to be the opposition inside of Pakistan: his competitors at the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC). He developed this very bizarre hatred for the other Khan, Munir Ahmed Khan, who was running the PAEC, and for other people associated with it. Emotionally and psychologically, Khan was totally out of control, and I think he just couldn't bear competition. He couldn't stand the idea that others would share credit with him for what he was doing. In some ways, he went nuts. His ego just knew no limits.

With age he also has become increasingly rigid and increasingly hawkish about the Indians. His personality was warped by the experience of his life.

I can almost sympathize with Khan's bitterness. In the 1979 letter to Der Spiegel you referenced, he criticized the "holier than thou attitudes of the Americans and the British" when it came to deciding who was allowed to have the bomb and who wasn't. You yourself call the NPT "openly discriminatory." It sounds as if this resentment was and is rather widespread.

It is extremely widespread in the world outside of the club of five nuclear-weapons states. It's somewhat muted in Europe although it exists there. There are many countries which are officially non-nuclear-weapons states which are in fact nuclear-weapons states because they can build one so fast—Germany, Sweden, Japan, lots of countries. The great majority of the economically and technologically advanced countries can build one pretty fast. In those cases, the sentiment is muted.

In the countries which don't have that capability, there's greater bitterness. It's a widespread emotion that justifies and to some extent fuels the spread of nuclear weapons around the world. It's not the reason that a country would choose to go down the nuclear-weapons path; there are more specific reasons, and they differ from country to country. But it provides the political, philosophical texture of those decisions. That's not an argument for the United States to disarm. Nor is it an argument for throwing up our hands. It's a political fact, an emotional fact of our time.

Should the NPT be changed to dampen this discontent?

No, it's not the NPT that causes this problem. It formalizes a structure in the world, and it's the structure that causes the problem. The structure in the world is that there are a few countries i that are massively armed with nuclear weapons and those countries try to prevent other countries from even being lightly armed with nuclear weapons. If you want to change that problem, you have to persuade Russia, the United States, China, to some degree France, and a few others to step down from their nuclear weapons. There is a clause in the NPT somewhere that says, Raise your right hand, place your other hand over your heart, and solemnly swear that someday in the future you will disarm. They will not do it. Maybe they shouldn't do it, I don't know.

I'm puzzled because nuclear proliferation seems like a top concern of the United States, and Khan was a clear agent of proliferation. Yet, according to your article, neither Pakistani nor U.S. leaders want to allow deeper scrutiny into Khan's proliferation network out of a "perceived geopolitical necessity." Could you help me understand this?

There are different reasons for it. The Pakistani military, which runs the Pakistani army and Musharraf, does not want the real story to come out because it will definitely implicate them. There's just no question about that. They don't want Khan's export activity to be explored fully out of political self-preservation.

It's important to realize that the United States, unlike Pakistan, is a very large and complex country politically. Pakistan has a lot of people, but it's actually a very small country because the great majority of people are extremely poor and basically don't count politically. Pakistan is a dictatorship with a very small elite running it as if it's a small country. The United States is not that. Within the United States government are many people who would like nothing more than to fully explore this network and to take it down, or explore it to the extent that they can operate against it effectively.

But there's another crowd inside the U.S. government, in the White House and elsewhere, who want to prop up the Musharraf government. The geopolitical reality for them—Bush, to the extent that he can think of anything, and his advisors—is that they feel that Musharraf is providing them with a military capability against the remnants of the Taliban and in the so-called "war on terror." Earlier we looked the other way when Pakistan was acquiring a nuclear weapon because the Pakistanis were fighting the Soviets for us in Afghanistan, and they were doing it effectively. Now we look the other way because the Pakistanis are perceived to be fighting the war on terror, but less effectively.

The non-proliferation world is full of people who cry foul over our attitude on this. They say this is hypocritical of the United States. I think it's actually not. Because we perceive non-state nuclear proliferation to be a larger threat to the world, we're more worried about it than the state proliferation Khan promoted. History will tell whether we are right or not, but these certainly are legitimate choices. It's not hypocritical.

Somewhere in the background of all of this is the reality that the world is not controllable by the United States. We may be a large power, but the world is much larger in power and size. We can't even control Iraq. If a country wants to acquire nuclear weapons, it will acquire nuclear weapons whether we like it or not. The case of Iran comes to mind. Whether we take Khan's network further apart or not, the countries that make a choice to acquire nuclear weapons are not doing that because Khan's network exists. It's just a tool. They're doing it for their own reasons and, aside from an occasional success, there's nothing the United States is going to do to stop it. Regardless of our geopolitical choices, we still would not be able to keep this technology from spreading. We do not have that power.

Khan's early spying coincided with the early years of the NPT, during a time of uncertain first efforts to define restricted materials lists. Do you think the NPT and efforts to control materials have matured enough to prevent a modern day Khan?

The NPT has definitely matured. It matured after the discovery of the nuclear-weapons program in Iraq after the Gulf War in '91, which I am writing about in part two. The "additional protocol," which some countries have signed on to, strengthens the International Atomic Energy Association's (IAEA) roles in countries that have signed on. The NPT has matured because of that and has become stronger, and more focused. The export-control lists and the domestic legislation backing those international agreements up have been greatly strengthened. The NPT in its current manifestation—the IAEA, the export-control-lists efforts—these are good things.

It is not a criticism of the NPT or the efforts of the non-proliferation specialists to say that none of this is going to prevent a future Khan. The NPT makes it harder. It slows things down. It forces more of the activity underground. If you're willing to ignore the double standard that we retain thousands of nuclear warheads in the United States, it makes us feel better about ourselves. We can feel better about ourselves for having strengthened the NPT, for pursuing serious export control, for forcing the market underground, for the occasional successes we have had. But we can't stop it.

In 1971, Pakistan's biggest obstacle to nuclear weapons was getting fissile material. But that's not as much of an issue in today's post-Cold War world. Not that long ago Osama bin Laden asked his followers, as Pakistan's President Bhutto did in 1971, to build nuclear weapons. What do you think of his chances?

Non-state acquisition of stolen weapons-grade material is a real possibility. There is no case in the open record of this having happened yet. That does not mean that it did not happen. You only need a few kilograms, so it is a very real possibility. People take it very seriously. Not just the hysterics. Not just people manipulating the terrorist card for political gain. Sober, intelligent people take this very seriously. With every year that passes without the use of a nuclear weapon by a terrorist group, the chances that this did happen decrease.

The problems of Bhutto are quite different, because state acquisition of nuclear weapons is an entirely different problem than terrorist or non-state acquisition. You need more if you are a country, and you need to sustain it. If you are a terrorist group, you just need one weapon. Stolen weapons-grade material cannot sustain a state nuclear-weapons program. The country that wants to have the weapons must manufacture the stuff.

The prospect of a nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan seems entirely conceivable. Yet at the same time, people celebrated in the streets when their countries tested their nuclear weapons. Is the gravity of nuclear war something that can't be comprehended?

I think you have to ask each individual. I mean, how afraid are people to die?

But to answer your question, no. I think people understand. I think it is understood on a low level and as a society. People rejoice for other reasons. You have to understand the inferiority complex, the hatred and fear associated with India. There are other things operating besides an understanding of nuclear explosions.

You could say, and it was said to me in Pakistan, that so far, with a big so far, deterrence has worked. These things can never be proven. Academics make entire careers arguing this back and forth. But it does seem likely that the existence of nuclear weapons on both sides has led to less of a tendency to irrationally go to war. There is a cooling-off underway, with hiccups and problems and the danger that it will suddenly turn into nuclear war. The cooling-off has to do with people's understanding. They don't feel like burning in a nuclear holocaust.

As proliferation continues on an unknown time schedule for generations, the chance of a nuclear war happening goes up. For a variety of reasons, the nuclear war we're likely to see in a highly nuclearized world, with alliance structures and geopolitical realities, is not likely to be the sort of earth-ending thing that we all grew up imagining. It won't be the Soviet Union against the United States. It'll be a couple of bombs thrown here and there. It will amount to enormous loss of life and terrible tragedy for those who are hit by the bombs, but as long as it doesn't ripple out of control, it will not mean the end of the earth.

I think it is important for Americans to understand that. Otherwise we're going to give ourselves hernias, as we have given ourselves in Iraq invading left and right because we think of it in Cold War terms and as meaning the end of the world. The type of proliferation we are talking about almost certainly does not mean the end of the world. A nuclear weapon in the hands of a terrorist could definitely mean the end of the Western order because of the self-destructive reactions that would follow, but an exchange between India and Pakistan, for instance, would probably be a very sad, very tragic, very bloody, but very limited affair.

So it depends on the people in power and how they interpret the meaning...

Right, if they think the other guy is going to pull the trigger, you could have an escalation. You could have World War I all over again, with all the sparks leading to the total annihilation of the globe. But I think that people are so aware of that possibility that a regional nuclear exchange seems unlikely to provoke that.

You said it was likely that Khan's weapons-distribution network is still existent. Do you think it's still operational?

I am looking at that now, and the best information is that it is basically in a dormant condition right now. It's not a single thing, it's not a highly organized, hierarchical network. It's more like a coalition of willing participants. Is it operating right now? You'd have to look at what exactly the North Koreans are doing. You'd have to look at what exactly the Iranians are doing. You might want to look at what Syria is doing. You might want to talk to the Saudis. I suspect there probably are players in the Khan network in that field, underground. But by definition, we don't know who they are.

It's a difficult question, is it still alive? Who can say it's not dead? And you can't really kill it. You might be able to arrest a few people. Most of them you wouldn't be able to arrest. Even if you could identify all the players, it would be a huge effort to get the national governments to make the arrests, especially in a world in which there's so much resentment toward overwhelming American nuclear power. There's a lot of secret sympathy for what Pakistan did. There's even a lot of secret sympathy for what Pakistan did in spreading the weapons. There's a lot of secret sympathy for the Iranians and what they're doing now. I'm not sure I don't share it.

Even if we did know all the components, it would be very difficult to kill this particular organism. It's called the world in which we live.