Pakistan’s Prometheus

The end of an era


The death of Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan brings to a close a complicated chapter in Pakistan’s history, and also should carry some lessons for Prime Minister Imran Khan. Perhaps the most important lesson is that the European powers are resisting the proliferation of nuclear weapons in much the same way that the Byzantines resisted the outing of the secret of Greek fire. That had been probably invented to fight the Muslims in the seventh century AD, but its secret was lost by 1203, when it was not used against the Fourth Crusade which sacked it.

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Though his passing has caused an outpouring of admiration because he is credited with being he ‘father of the Pakistani bomb’, he is also responsible for Pakistan being accused of nuclear proliferation.

The ‘father of the bomb’ title is disputed. Dr Qadeer did not design the bomb; that was the Quaid-e-Azam University’s Dr Riazuddin. He never headed the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission, which had been tasked at the Multan Conference back in 1975, with making the bomb. That was Munir Ahmad Khan.

That Conference determined that the route to the bomb would be uranium, not plutonium. It was only then that Dr Qadeer entered the scene. Uranium cannot be used for either a bomb or power generation. Its main component is the U-238 isotope, which is about 99.3 percent of natural uranium. The U-235 isotope is 0.7 percent in nature, but if enriched (by using this difference in atomic weights), the resulting metal can be used as either fuel for a power reactor, or the core of an atomic weapon. This is a birdseye view of a very complex process. It should be noted that the US anger at Iran, and Israeli worries, are caused by Iran’s attempts to master this same enrichment technology. Allegations of Dr Khan’s supplying not just knowhow but equipment to Iran were behind his ultimate downfall.

Dr Khan was a metallurgical engineer by qualification, and was working with a Dutch firm, Urenco, which made fissile material for power reactors when he was tapped by Zulfikar Ali Bhuttto, after the Multan Conference, to make he fissile material for a Pakistani bomb using the uranium-enrichment technology.

That all involved making the enrichment machinery. It was science of a very high order, and his organisation, the Khan Research Laboratories, also developed a reputation as something of a rival to the PAEC. He had insisted on a separate organisation, and it became a rival employer of physics postgraduates from Pakistani universities. KRL and the PAEC absorbed all the physicists, leaving only those for teaching those who did not like to get into the security measures that employment by these two organisations meant.

Dr Khan was not really a tragic figure, though. His life was more like a spy thriller than a Greek tragedy. And though his fall was tremendous, he retained a place in the hearts of his countrymen that no one could take from him.

That uranium enrichment was something that he achieved, after other scientists had struggled, is not disputed. It is also not disputed that much of the equipment necessary for this could not be bought legally. The black market had to be tapped. While the PAEC was kept out of this, because it was the national atomic energy body, KRL was not. It is possible that official circles touted Dr Khan as the father of the bomb and KRL as the centre of the nuclear programme as a diversionary tactic. It should not be ignored that it has been said that making a nuclear weapon involves 24 steps, with uranium enrichment being one of them. However, it is not the only one, so just as someone who is responsible for one step cannot claim to be its ‘father’, so the credit must go to the political bosses who took the decision.

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In Pakistan’s case, that credit must go to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. His inauguration of the nuclear programme was no mere knee-jerk reaction to India’s 1974 test, but something he had been arguing for from the time he was Foreign Minister in Ayub Khan’s Cabinet. India had decided to go nuclear in response to China doing so, but Ayub Khan decided against because he foresaw a slew of complications, which later did transpire, both because Pakistan initiated a programme, and after it achieved a successful test.

Bhutto’s hanging occurred after Henry Kissinger, then US Secretary of State, threatened to make a horrible example of him. However, the man who hanged him, Ziaul Haq, went ahead with the programme. Though Bhutto had personally intervened first to get Dr Khan to come abroad, Zia retained him. It is interesting that the nuclear programme received support from governments of all stripes, whether Benazir’s or Nawaz Sharif’s upto the moment of testing.

The allegations of proliferation may or may not have been true. Dr Qadeer confessed to them, was put under house arrest and stripped of KRL. The state he had served so well had turned around and let him down. The state had done so because the alternative, of trying to defend him, might have led to others being implicated. It is too much to imagine that Dr Khan acted alone. Who could have permitted him to operate what amounted to an independent foreign policy.? Only an institution with which he worked for many years. It would have contradicted something Pakistan was at pains to establish, that it was responsible, and not a proliferator.

Imran Khan might do well to learn from that example. Just as Dr Khan was a national hero because so many thought he was the Father of the Bomb, Imran became a national hero because he captained a World-Cup-winning team.

It wasn’t just achievement that counted for both. Dr Khan was credited with having kept India off Pakistani backs, but because that is all the atom bomb means for Pakistanis: it is not a great-power thing, a prestige project, a symbol of national pride, as it is for India: it is what stops India repressing Pakistan. In the same way, Imran was not so much reward for being a winner, as given a chance to solve people’s problems.

Yet when push came to shove, the very establishment which had elevated him for its own purposes (to provide a distraction from the real force behind the bomb), threw Dr Khan under the bus. In the same way, Imran should rest assured that if his utility to the establishment declines, it will distance itself from him so fast he will not know what happened.

Is it really a coincidence that Dr Khan also founded a political party. Nothing really came of it, and it was Imran’s entry into the field of politics that was crowned with success.

According to Greek legend, Prometheus is supposed to have stolen fire from the gods and given it to men. Zeus punished him by pinning him to a rock, where daily an eagle came to eat his liver, which would grow back overnight. Only to be eaten again the next day. It is possible to see Dr Khan as just such a promethean figure, for he helped Pakistan get the uranium enrichment technology which was forbidden outside the Nuclear Suppliers Group as firmly as the gods forbade the use of fire outside their own circle. And like Prometheus, Dr Khan was punished with a long-lasting punishment.

Dr Khan was not really a tragic figure, though. His life was more like a spy thriller than a Greek tragedy. And though his fall was tremendous, he retained a place in the hearts of his countrymen that no one could take from him.


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