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What AQ Khan’s diaries tell about Pakistan’s drive for a nuclear bomb

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Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, the Pakistani scientist who gave nuclear secrets to Iran, Libya and North Korea, died of COVID-19 on Sunday at age 85 at his home in the capital, Islamabad. But his death does not mark the end of his story. I can now write about what I learned while reading more than 40 years of his diaries, which he wrote daily from when he began work on Pakistan’s nuclear weapon project in 1976.

The diaries, written in English, sometimes in a hasty scrawl, are an extraordinary treasure trove. Though the diaries are revelatory to most of us, I doubt whether they reveal anything that the U.S. intelligence community and allied foreign agencies do not already know. I suspect the need for compromises, which are often the essence of formulating foreign policy, has held back revealing the full picture. Pakistan, of course, facilitated the defeat of Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s and was a crucial partner, post-9/11, in dealing with al Qaeda, and even today needs to be handled carefully now that the Taliban again control Kabul.

Khan’s ego is crucial to understanding the man. He was proud of his label of being the “father of the Pakistani bomb” or the “father of the Islamic bomb,” but angered about being blamed for sharing nuclear secrets. He claimed that he acted only at the order or instigation of the Pakistan government. What was true? I concluded that sometimes he had authorization and sometimes he didn’t. And when he didn’t have authorization, the Pakistani authorities — meaning the military, who are the real power in the country —usually knew what he was doing and, for one reason or another, allowed him to get away with it.

There are a couple of obvious examples of this in the pages of the 1980 volume. One evening, a colonel and his wife came to visit. “During talk he carefully but casually asked [me] if any Middle East country was interested in our project,” Khan wrote. Five days earlier, Khan had made a private visit to the Syrian capital, Damascus, where he met Defense Minister Gen. Mustafa Tlass and Gen. Hikmat Shihabi, the chief of army staff. “We had a frank and open discussion,” he wrote. Six months later, Khan wrote that he was told by President Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, Pakistan’s military dictator: “We should be careful with respect to drawings. This was our only asset.”

Despite being officially disgraced and under house arrest for several years after the news of his proliferation activities broke in late 2003, Khan was buried Sunday with full military honors, including a salute of rifle fire. Video shows that the first wreaths to be laid on his grave were marked as being from “CJCSC” (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee) and COAS (Chief of Army Staff). Prime Minister Imran Khan, who ordered his ministers to attend the funeral, tweeted: “He was loved by our nation [because] of his critical contribution in making us a nuclear weapon state. For the people of Pakistan, he was a national icon.” 

I have written about Pakistan and nuclear weapons since being the BBC correspondent there in 1977 and 1978. At the time, Pakistan’s efforts to obtain plutonium to be used to make a nuclear bomb was the story. I went back in 1979, after the Financial Times (FT) colleague who replaced me had been beaten when he tried to interview Khan, whose role in providing access to high-enriched uranium routes had just emerged publicly. 

I subsequently wrote multiple stories for the FT about Pakistan’s attempts to buy nuclear technology and avoid export controls by sending it via Gulf states such as Dubai. On one occasion, when Khan won an appeal from being sentenced in absentia to jail in the Netherlands, I rang him up and asked for his comment. The fact I quoted him accurately appeared to have impressed him. I never asked him directly, but he seemed to think I understood Pakistan and appreciated my understanding of nuclear technology.

He told me years ago that he kept a diary. More recently, when I asked to see the diaries, he said, “Only when I am dead.” I responded that other people’s obituaries of him would then define his life history. A few years ago, he decided that he was prepared to share with me electronic copies of his diaries but stated, “It is my wish that Simon Henderson does not publish anything from the diaries until after my death, unless he is instructed otherwise by myself or my family.” 

His concluding sentence on a “To whom it may concern” letter from his Islamabad home was: “After my death, it is my wish that the electronic copies of my diaries should be shared with a university, where they should be available to research scholars.” 

Simon Henderson is the Baker Fellow and director of the Bernstein Program on Gulf and Energy Policy at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Follow him on Twitter @shendersongulf.

Tags Abdul Qadeer Khan Afghanistan Nuclear proliferation Pakistan Pakistan and weapons of mass destruction

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