November 2005 Atlantic Monthly

How A. Q. Khan made Pakistan a nuclear power—and showed that the spread of atomic weapons can't be stopped

by William Langewiesche

The Wrath of Khan

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Rawalpindi is a city of two million residents on the northern plains of the Punjab, in Pakistan. It is a teeming place, choked with smoke and overcrowded with people just barely getting by. A large number of them live hand to mouth on the equivalent of a few hundred dollars a year. Much of their drinking water comes from a lake in the peaceful countryside north of town. The lake is surrounded by tree-lined pastures and patches of sparse forest. The navy of Pakistan has a sailing club there, on a promontory with a cinder-block shack, a dock, and one small sloop in the water—a Laser 16 with dirty sails, which sees little use. Though fishermen and picnickers sometimes appear in the afternoons or evenings, the lakefront on both sides of the promontory is pristine and undeveloped. The emptiness is by design: though the land around the lake is privately owned, zoning laws strictly forbid construction there, in order to protect Rawalpindi's citizens from the contamination that would otherwise result. This seems only right. If Pakistan can do nothing else for its people, it can at least prevent the rich from draining their sewage into the water of the poor.

But Pakistan is a country corrupted to its core, and some years ago a large weekend house was built in blatant disregard of the law, about a mile from the navy's sailing club, clearly in sight on the lake's far shore. When ordinary people build illegal houses in Pakistan, the government's response is unambiguous and swift: backed by soldiers or the police, bulldozers come in and knock the structures down. But the builder of this house was none other than Dr. Abdul Quadeer Khan, the metallurgist who after a stint in Europe had returned to Pakistan in the mid-1970s with stolen designs, and over the years had provided the country—single-handedly, it was widely believed—with an arsenal of nuclear weapons. Though he worked in the realm of state secrets, Khan had become something of a demigod in Pakistan, with a public reputation second only to that of the nation's founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, and he had developed an ego to match. He was the head of a government facility named after him—the Khan Research Laboratories, or KRL—which had mastered the difficult process of producing highly enriched uranium, the fissionable material necessary for Pakistan's weapons, and was also involved in the design of the warheads and the missiles to deliver them. The enemy was India, where Khan, like most Pakistanis of his generation, had been born, and against which Pakistan has fought four losing wars since its birth, in 1947. India had the bomb, and now Pakistan did too. A. Q. Khan was seen to have assured the nation's survival, and indeed he probably has—up until the moment, someday in a conceivable future, when a nuclear exchange actually occurs.

In any case, by the time he built the house on the lake, he believed wholeheartedly in his own greatness. In his middle age he had become a fleshy, banquet-fed man, unused to criticism and outrageously self-satisfied. Accompanied by his security detail, he would go around Pakistan accepting awards and words of praise, passing out pictures of himself, and holding forth on diverse subjects—science, education, health, history, world politics, poetry, and (his favorite) the magnitude of his achievements. As befits such a benefactor, he would also give out money, of which he seemed to have an unlimited supply, despite the fact that he was a government official with a government official's salary and no other obvious means of wealth; he bought houses for his friends, funded scholarships, set up his own private charity, made large donations to mosques, and bestowed grants on Pakistani schools and institutions, many of which duly named themselves or their buildings after him. To understand Khan correctly—which to some degree is to understand the spread of nuclear arsenals beyond the traditional great powers—it is necessary to recognize that his largesse was not merely a matter of self-aggrandizement. 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 to why, therefore, he insisted on building a weekend house that drained into Rawalpindi's drinking water, the answer is indeed twisted, though in a standard Pakistani way: the attraction was not in the setting on the lake (there are prettier lakes nearby) but, rather, in the open defiance of the law—an opportunity for the display of personal power. In a country whose courts have been made captive, and whose most fundamental laws have been systematically ignored by corrupt civilian governments and successive military regimes, once wealth has been achieved there can be no more gratifying display of success than such a brazen act of illegality. Khan's house on the lake served as a barely coded message, and one that was universally understood by Pakistanis at the time. It was a public brag. People did not disapprove of Khan for what he had done. Even in Rawalpindi they tended rather to admire him for it. It remained illegal to build on the lake, and as a result, by twisted logic, the restricted property there became some of the most sought after in the region. A. Q. Khan had pioneered the ground. Within a few years other houses had been built near his, perhaps a dozen in all, and each for the same reason—because of the extraordinary influence it took to get away with such a public crime. Some of the builders were generals. Some were Khan's associates from the secret laboratory. All of them derived additional glory from their proximity to the beloved Khan.

Then for Khan, in January of 2004, the good life came crashing down. He was sixty-eight at the time. U.S. agents had intercepted a German ship named the BBC China carrying parts for a Libyan nuclear-weapons-production program, and Libya, in subsequently renouncing its nuclear ambitions, had named Pakistan, and particularly the Khan Research Laboratories, as the supplier of what was to be a complete store-bought nuclear-weapons program. The price tag was said to be $100 million. At about the same time, it was revealed that the Pakistani-run network had provided information and nuclear-weapons components to Iran and North Korea, and had begun negotiations with a fourth country, perhaps Syria or Saudi Arabia. The current dictator of Pakistan, General Pervez Musharraf, denied any personal knowledge or governmental involvement, and with his masters in Washington, D.C., looking sternly on, accused Khan of running a rogue operation, outside the law. It was theater of the diplomatic kind. But Musharraf was an unconvincing actor. In the context of Pakistan he might as well have expressed surprise that Khan had built a house on the shores of a drinking-water supply.

Khan's top lieutenants had already been detained. Now Khan himself was arrested—taken away by plainclothes security agents who came in the night and drove him to a secret location for a few days of questioning and persuasion. An agreement was reached, and on February 4, 2004, in a stage-managed event, Khan appeared on television and made a public confession, in which he apologized to the nation and absolved the military regime of involvement. Musharraf called Khan a national hero for his earlier work, and then pardoned him and confined him to house arrest at his grand Los Angeles—style residence in the nation's tightly controlled capital, Islamabad, a short drive north of Rawalpindi. Khan has been there ever since, in isolation with his European wife, surrounded by guards and security agents, cut off from contact with the outside world, not allowed to read the newspapers or watch television, let alone to use the telephone or the Internet, and held beyond the reach of even the intelligence services of the United States. The 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 inevitably it will. Pakistan has mounted its own investigation, and is parceling out some information to the United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency, the IAEA, in Vienna. But for obvious reasons the Pakistani regime cannot allow deep scrutiny to occur, and neither, out of perceived geopolitical necessity, can the current leaders of the United States.

Khan therefore remains an enigma—a man who may die in isolation, still carrying his secrets with him. Some news does filter out about the conditions of his captivity. He has aged considerably, and has lost weight and sickened, but apparently he is not being poisoned. After decades of soft living he suffers from various physical ailments, including constipation and, more significant, chronic high blood pressure, which led last summer to a brief hospitalization. He is also deeply despondent—convinced that he served his nation honorably, and that even as he transferred its nuclear secrets to other countries, he was acting on behalf of Pakistan, and with the complicity of its military rulers. He sleeps poorly at night. Last spring he managed to slip a note out to one of his former lieutenants. It was a scribbled lament in which he asked about General Musharraf, "Why is this boy doing this to me?" The answer seems obvious: it is a requirement for maintaining power. Ordinary Pakistanis remain on Khan's side. But out of self-protection the elites must turn away from him now.

Even his longtime scribe, a journalist named Zahid Malik, who for years praised Khan in public, and published an adoring biography of him in 1992, told me recently that Khan's arrest was necessary. We met in Malik's Islamabad office, at the newspaper he founded, called the Pakistan Observer. He emphasized his loyalty to the military regime. He said, "After 9/11 Pakistan has emerged as a trusted and responsible ally of the West. Pakistan has adopted a principled position, you see, of working against terrorism, extremism, al-Qaeda, and all that. When Pakistan came to know of certain complaints, Pakistan reacted, you see, and very forcefully. Because as President Musharraf has been saying, and rightly so, whatever Dr. Khan did was his personal act."

He also said that Musharraf is rooting out corruption.

Since we were on the subject of law, I asked him what he knew about the formal basis for Khan's continuing detention. He did not directly answer. He said, "The government says it is because of his security. His own safety."

I asked, "Do you believe that yourself? That it's in his interest to be confined?"

Malik did not hesitate. Almost eagerly he said, "I think so, I think so."

It pays in Pakistan to be politically realistic. Khan's days on the lake are over, but other people are still out there building or expanding their houses. The most noticeable place is next door to Khan's. It is under construction, and showy in the style of an international hotel. Khan's house by comparison seems modest now, all the more so because it is shuttered and abandoned. Even on sun-filled days there is a sadness to the scene; in the afternoons when the wind comes up, there is nonetheless a stillness. Khan's garden, which slopes to the shore and was once his pride, is growing wild. He has a little speedboat beside a private dock, but it is open to the rain and is slowly swamping, settling nose-down into the water.

Khan's personal history is obscured as much by adulation as by secrecy. Something is known of his childhood. He was born in 1936, to a Muslim family in Bhopal, India—a city now known for the 18,000 deaths caused there by an accidental venting, one night in 1984, at a Union Carbide insecticide plant. Bhopal in the 1930s was split between Hindus and Muslims. The two groups lived in wary but peaceful proximity, despite growing sectarian animosity elsewhere on the Subcontinent. Khan was one of seven children. His father was a retired schoolmaster of modest means, with a thin, severe face, a white beard, and a turban. He was a partisan of the Muslim League, and when visiting the bazaar would warn like-minded men of Mahatma Gandhi's craftiness, and his ambition to annihilate the Muslims. These were of course common fears at the time, and they were reflected on the Hindu side as well. After World War II, as Great Britain rushed to withdraw from its burdensome colonial charge, and India's factions deadlocked over a power-sharing arrangement, a partition was decided upon that would carve a separate Muslim nation, called Pakistan, from Indian soil. The new nation would itself be split in two, between the Muslim-majority area of the west, primarily along the Indus River, and a smaller Muslim area far to the east, on the delta of the Ganges, in Bengal. It was an awkward exit strategy, but better than trying to control a full-blown civil war. A British official was sent from London, and with no previous expertise in the region, he drew up the boundaries within a few weeks.

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William Langewiesche is a national correspondent for The Atlantic.

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