Widely considered the “father” of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program, Abdul Qadeer Khan died last week at the age of 85. His efforts made him a national hero in his home country, an icon who made invaluable contributions in the fight to protect Pakistan from its larger neighbor and allow it to stand tall and free on the international stage. For many others, however, Khan was a criminal who enabled nuclear proliferation around the world.

A.Q. Khan (as he was commonly known) was a nuclear engineer, who has born in India and emigrated to Pakistan after the bloody partition in 1947 that birthed the two countries. He studied metallurgy and, after doing graduate study in Germany, joined a Dutch company that enriched uranium for a consortium of European nuclear-engineering firms. India’s “peaceful nuclear explosion” in 1974 set off alarm bells in Pakistan, which had a violent territorial dispute with Delhi over control of Jammu and Kashmir, predominately Muslim areas that are part of India but claimed by Pakistan.

Fearful that India’s new nuclear capabilities would give it an insuperable advantage in the competition with Pakistan, Khan endeavored to secure the same for his own government. He later said that he remembered how India had supported separatists who split his country in two, with East Pakistan becoming Bangladesh and “I wanted that what happened in 1971 should never be repeated again.” He stole designs for nuclear centrifuges from his Dutch employer so that Pakistan could enrich uranium to build its own bomb. Years later, he explained that after the 1974 tests, “I felt that Pakistan’s security is in danger.”

Khan returned to Pakistan in 1975 to set up the country’s first nuclear facility, later named the Dr. A.Q. Khan Research Laboratories. From his perch as director and chief scientist, he is reputed to have directed Pakistan’s nuclear weapons development program, an effort that culminated in its first nuclear tests in 1998, just after India conducted its own nuclear tests. For that work, he was, tweeted Pakistan’s current prime minister, Imran Khan, “loved by our nation (because) of his critical contribution in making us a nuclear weapon state.” Providing security against “an aggressive much larger nuclear neighbor,” Prime Minister Khan continued, made the scientist “a national icon.”

Were Khan responsible only for his country’s progress beyond the nuclear threshold, his international reputation would be much different. Instead, however, he also established a nuclear smuggling and proliferation network that supplied technology to North Korea, Iran and Libya, enabling some of the world’s most dangerous governments to pursue their own dreams of going nuclear. Western governments believe that Khan was instrumental in advancing Pyongyang’s nuclear program, trading his enrichment technology for the North’s ballistic missiles. Iranian capabilities were also enhanced.

Those activities prompted the United States, a key supporter of Islamabad, to pressure then President Pervez Musharraf to fire Khan, which he did in 2001, although the scientist retained a role as scientific adviser to the government. Three years later, Khan confessed on Pakistan’s national television to having run the international proliferation program, but insisted that he had acted alone. He was pardoned by Musharraf, but was put under house arrest, where he remained for much of the rest of this life.

Parts of this tale are contested. Some Pakistani scientists insist that Khan was a mere cog in a larger program, and his prominence reflects Khan’s public relations abilities rather than his technical skills. Khan himself recanted parts of his 2004 confession, denying any involvement in nuclear smuggling and said that everything he did had official government sanction. In his telling, he was no rogue actor who acted for personal motives.

Perhaps the most troubling part of the Khan story is the way that Western governments dealt with this entire sordid tale. Their intelligence agencies were aware of Khan’s work for years but they did not stop him because they wanted to see who he was dealing with and how his network operated. They preferred collecting intelligence to taking action to stop one of the world’s most dangerous proliferators.

Those same governments were also prepared to scapegoat Khan and charge him with acting without Islamabad’s approval to maintain good relations with a country that was considered a vital ally in the fight against Soviet expansionism in Afghanistan. U.S. presidents had to certify that Pakistan was not engaged in efforts to build a nuclear weapon if that country was to continue to receive U.S. aid; Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush did so despite considerable evidence to the contrary.

Calculations changed in the early 2000s, when the U.S. worried less about Moscow and more about the potential for a nuclear-armed “axis of evil” consisting of Iran, Iraq and North Korea, two members of which were Khan’s customers. The prospect of Islamic terrorists acquiring nuclear knowhow was equally worrying for Washington. The need to crack down on Khan intensified — along with the desire to retain a window on, connections to and hopefully influence upon the Pakistan government. Again, the need for intelligence trumped other considerations and guided U.S. decisionmaking.

A.Q. Khan’s legacy will always be binary: national hero for Pakistanis, international smuggler for many others. No matter which version prevails, his life is a reminder of the power of an individual to write history.

The Japan Times Editorial Board

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