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A.Q. Khan remains a hero in Pakistan

by Gautaman Bhaskaran

MADRAS, India — If there is one man who can be held singularly responsible for nuclear proliferation, it has to be Abdul Qadeer Khan, known as the father of Pakistan’s atomic bomb. Khan was a metallurgist before he became a nuclear businessman. That’s what he was: He ran a “Nuclear Wal-Mart,” according to a new book about him.

The tome, ” Shopping for Bombs: Nuclear Proliferation, Global Insecurity and the Rise and Fall of the A.Q. Khan Network,” by Gordon Corera, reads like a thriller.

Khan has been under house arrest in one of Islamabad’s posh localities. Recently, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. A wave of sympathy for the 70-year-old scientist is now sweeping Pakistan: Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz sent him flowers, and cricketer-cum-politician Imran Khan said the ailing Khan would be treated in the best cancer hospital in Lahore. Khan owns the hospital.

Such gestures merely reaffirm what was always suspected, but never proved. A.Q. Khan never ceased to be a hero in the eyes of the common Pakistani. And those in the higher echelons of the country’s political power never stopped respecting him.

But the fact remains that Khan went beyond helping Pakistan acquire nuclear capability. He turned into a trader, driven by personal avarice. Khan reportedly made his millions selling death and destruction.

When the U.S. named Khan as a nuclear proliferator who sold nuclear secrets to North Korea, Libya and Iran, he confessed to the crime on television.

Everybody knows this. But did Khan have any other customers? Nobody knows. Or, nobody is talking.

Khan, once the powerful head of one of Pakistan’s two rival nuclear laboratories, is said to have been pushed by Islamabad’s determination to “eat grass or leaves” if need be to match India’s nuclear arsenal. However, at some point his personal aspirations appear to have overtaken national considerations. Khan’s agenda changed from an “import procurement network into an export-led proliferation network, run for private profit.”

In the early 1990s, Pakistan bought nuclear missiles from North Korea for cash. Pakistan sold this knowhow to Iran and Libya, but these deals had less to do with patriotism for Pakistan and more to do with Khan’s plan to fill his private coffers.

Corera says in his book that Khan escaped international scrutiny in the 1980s because Western powers were obsessed with fighting communism. Nuclear proliferation hardly came in their view. Later, Pakistan bought nuclear material and technology through intermediaries, who also helped it to resell a part of both.

Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf was, when shown evidence of Khan’s manipulative operations, nervous about banishing the nuclear hero.

It was only when a ship with nuclear parts sailing for Libya was intercepted that Tripoli decided to come clean and revealed information about Khan. The hero had to be pulled down from his pedestal by the Musharraf administration.

By then Khan had done enough harm to this world. Khan gave Libya a detailed bomb design that China had earlier given Pakistan.

Apart from Libya, Iran and North Korea, Khan had a fourth buyer. We do not know who this was, but some supplies had already reached this customer.

Khan converted bomb-making into a small-scale industry. Some of these factories have been shut down. Others still exist and make money.

Musharraf did say he was highly embarrassed when he was presented with documents confirming Khan’s nefarious activities. But he would perhaps never punish Khan in the strict sense of the term. Khan’s immense popularity is an obstacle, and his current illness will make him even more endearing to his supporters.

Khan is and will remain a hero. If Musharraf tries further to take the halo off the father of Pakistan’s nuclear program, he could well become the villain of this atomic drama.