Such was the scene American officials faced in the global nuclear marketplace as they grappled with the inadequacy of the UN's multi-party approach, and tried through private entreaties to European governments to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. They were undercut, as they are today, by the thousands of nuclear warheads that the United States insisted on retaining for itself, and the resentment that such an obvious double standard provoked even within countries such as Germany and the Netherlands, which were said to be direct beneficiaries of American nuclear strength. They did, however, experience a few successes—particularly in 1977, when they pressured the French into backing out of the lucrative agreement to provide Pakistan with its long-desired plutonium-reprocessing plant. The cancellation set back the PAEC's nuclear-weapons plans by a decade or more. In consequence it further legitimized A. Q. Khan, and helped him to pursue his alternative goals—but nothing could be done about that anyway. For France the cost of killing the deal was several billion dollars, because of the loss of associated contracts for French products such as airplanes and trucks. The decision was all the more difficult because, with its "force de frappe," France embodied the right (and perhaps the need) of independent nations to bear nuclear arms. Such was its ambivalence that it had refused to join the Non-Proliferation Treaty. (It would not join until 1992.) Nonetheless, as an established power pretending to diplomatic relevance, it had little choice but to back away once it was faced with evidence of Pakistan's ambitions. By American estimation France this time behaved well.
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."
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.