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Sunday, April 14, 2024

How Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan saved Pakistan by making it a nuclear weapon state?

Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan was hailed as a national hero for transforming his country into the world's first Islamic nuclear power. Under Dr. Qadeer's leadership, Islamabad is believed to have silently developed its nuclear program in the 1980s. Also known as “Mohsin-e-Pakistan”, Dr. Qadeer was the only Pakistani to receive the country's top civilian awards thrice.

January 1972. Winter. Cold, Clammy, dark, depressing. Pain and anguish about the recent past, Uncertainty and apprehension about the immediate future. The country had disintegrated after a brutal civil war, the army had surrendered to the despised enemy and the national morale lay in ruins. The insufficiency of the country’s defenses, the inadequacy of the armed forces to protect the country and the inability of the nation to stand up and fight had been laid bare for all the world to see. In these tough times, if it wasn’t for Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, Pakistan would’ve never have seen peaceful days.

The new Prime Minister, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, was a very worried man. Considered an expert in foreign policy matters, Bhutto’s understanding of the post World War II global environment had been shaken to the core. If India could attack and disintegrate Pakistan by militarily conquering the whole Eastern Wing with impunity with the global powers and the UN, the so-called defenders of the principle of sovereignty, not even lifting a finger, then what would stop India from going further the next time?

Read more: Pakistan’s nuclear hero, A.Q khan dies at 85

The answer theoretically at least, was very simple

Pakistan had to strengthen its defense enough to deter such decisive aggression by India. The answer, practically, appeared nigh impossible. How could a truncated Pakistan, with a population and economy seven and five times smaller than that of India deter India? The 1971 war had exposed the Pakistani Martial superiority myth. The abundance in men and materials had led India to victory and now that abundance had seen a huge relative increase after the bitter separation of East Pakistan. What was to be done?

But wait. Instead of an implausible conventional deterrent, why not go for an unconventional one? All who remembered the mushroom clouds over Hiroshima and Nagasaki couldn’t ever underestimate the awesome potential of nuclear power. If Pakistan could get the atomic bomb, the nightmare of a mushroom cloud over Delhi and Mumbai would keep India from attempting a repeat of 1971. So, one of the first things Mr. Bhutto did after assuming power, was to arrange a meeting with the leading nuclear scientists of the country in that cold, clammy, dark and depressing month of January 1972. Bhutto asked them to build a nuclear bomb for Pakistan, and they promised to build him one in five years.

Fast forward to May 1974. India has successfully conducted a nuclear test and has joined the elite club of nuclear nations. After demonstrating her conventional superiority in 1971, now India had proven her un-conventional supremacy as well. On the other hand, the Pakistani atomic bomb project wasn’t making great progress. Bhutto was getting impatient. And, then cometh the hour, cometh the man! Mr. Bhutto received a letter from one Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, a metallurgical scientist working in the Netherlands, who claimed that he could solve the pivotal problem of Uranium enrichment and build the bomb for Pakistan!

Read more: A.Q. Khan: Nuclear hero to Pakistan, villain to West

Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan: a hero of Pakistan

Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, a highly respected scientist in Europe, had clearly appreciated the grave threat India’s nuclear capability presented to Pakistan. Instead of just railing against India in his drawing-room (a favorite and very popular Pakistani way of expressing patriotism), he chose simply to devote his life to ensuring Pakistan’s security by turning Pakistan into nuclear power. He left the good, quiet life he had earned with so much difficulty in Europe. He understood the emotional costs of turning into a nuclear spy for his country and he gladly accepted that as well, not to mention the physical danger he was putting himself in.

He successfully acquired nuclear secrets for Pakistan, uprooted his family and came back home to make Pakistan invincible. And, no one had asked for his services! It was solely his love for Islam and Pakistan that made him sacrifice all he had earned in life up to that point and lunge forward into the murky world of Pakistan’s nuclear program. If ever there was a volunteer for Pakistan, it was him! The rest, as they say, is history.

The story doesn’t end with Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan’s success in turning Pakistan into a nuclear power though. In 2004, he was accused of being involved in nuclear proliferation. He confessed publicly and spent the rest of his life under house arrest/limited freedom. The world ridiculed him with the title of “The Merchant of Menace”. Many, even in Pakistan, made insinuations of greed, guilt and corruption.

Read more: Let me be Free: Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan pleads before Supreme Court

But, reality can is obscured for a long, and now everyone knows that this episode was the last sacrifice Khan’s weak and wimpish nation demanded of him. And, once again, he utterly disregarded his own well-being and took the broadside intended for his nation squarely on his breast. He was very “a hero. Not the one we deserved, but the one we needed.”

Iqbal envisioned a Pakistan and Jinnah created a Pakistan but the form Pakistan took was a grotesque and disfigured imitation of that exalted dream. Instead of a strong, confident nation believing in her destiny of leading the Islamic world out of the 300 year-long slumps, we made a weak, supplicating nation confused in her aims and ideology, with one hand cut off by the enemy and a begging bowl in the other. Nevertheless, the continued existence of this nation remained a source of hope for the future. But, our weakness put even our existence into the realm of the uncertain. That is where the third great son of Pakistan came in.

Iqbal was the diviner of Pakistan. Jinnah was the creator of Pakistan. Dr. AQ Khan was the defender of Pakistan. In the pantheon of Pakistan, these three stand tall. There is no fourth one there. Not yet.


The writer is a doctor and an avid reader of history. His columns have been published in the Urdu daily “Nawa-e-Waqt”. He also runs a social media channel “Tarikh aur Tajziya” which is dedicated to the study of history and current affairs. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.