DR ABDUL QADEER KHAN (1936-2021)
SOME MEN ARE GREATER THAN ANY TRIBUTE!
Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan was born in Bhopal, India, on April 1, 1936. He was just a young boy when he immigrated, along with his family, to Pakistan in 1947 after partition of the Subcontinent. He did a science degree at Karachi University in 1960. Then, over the next decade, he pursued graduate studies abroad, first in West Germany and then in Delft, Netherlands, from where, in 1967, he received a ‘master’s degree in metallurgy. In 1972, he earned a doctorate in metallurgical engineering from the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium. Meanwhile, in 1964, he married Hendrina Reterink, a British national who had been born to Dutch expatriate parents in South Africa and raised in what was then Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) before moving to the Netherlands.
In the spring of 1972, he was hired by Physical Dynamics Research Laboratory, a subcontractor of the Dutch partner of URENCO, a consortium of British, German and Dutch companies. It was established in 1971 to research and develop uranium-enrichment through the use of ultracentrifuges, which are centrifuges that operate at extremely high speeds. Khan was granted a low-level security clearance, but, through lax oversight, he gained access to a full range of information on ultracentrifuge technology and visited the Dutch plant at Almelo many times. One of his jobs was to translate German documents on advanced centrifuges into Dutch. Khan was heavily influenced by events back home, notably Pakistan’s defeat in a brief war with India in 1971, the subsequent loss of East Pakistan through the creation of a newly-independent country, Bangladesh, and India’s test of a nuclear device in May 1974.
On September 17, 1974, Khan wrote to Pakistan’s then Prime Minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, offering his assistance in preparing an atomic bomb. In the letter, he offered the opinion that the uranium route to the bomb, using centrifuges for enrichment, was better than the plutonium path (already underway in Pakistan), which relied on nuclear reactors and reprocessing.
Bhutto met Khan in December 1974 and encouraged him to do everything he could to help Pakistan attain the bomb. On December 15, 1975, he left the Netherlands for Pakistan, accompanied by his wife and two daughters. Khan initially worked with the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC), but differences arose with its head, Munir Ahmad Khan. In mid-1976, at Bhutto’s direction, Khan founded the Engineering Research Laboratory, or ERL, to develop a uranium-enrichment capability (In May 1981 the laboratory was renamed the Khan Research Laboratory or KRL). Khan’s base of operations was in Kahuta, 50 km (30 miles) southeast of Islamabad; there he developed prototype centrifuges based on German designs. His most crucial contribution to Pakistan’s nuclear program was the procurement of a blueprint for uranium centrifuges, which transform uranium into weapons-grade fuel for nuclear fissile material.
In the early 1980s, Pakistan acquired from China the blueprints of a nuclear weapon that used a uranium-implosion design that the Chinese had successfully tested in 1966. It is generally believed that the Chinese tested a derivative design for the Pakistanis on May 26, 1990. His laboratory also developed Pakistan’s Ghauri ballistic missile.
When India conducted nuclear tests in 1998, India’s Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani claimed, “By testing, we have called Pakistan’s bluff.” Yet, Dr Khan with his dedicated team (whom he generously credits in his writings for their genius and dedication) improvised, developed and brought to Pakistan the proverbial Promethean Fire. Pakistan succeeded in developing a third route to producing fissionable material. The other two were developed by the United States (and adopted by successive nuclear-weapon states) at the Manhattan Project in the 1940s.
The whole nation was waiting for a robust response from Pakistan and finally, under his supervision, the nuclear tests were conducted in Chagai, Balochistan. Thus, Pakistan gave a befitting response to India. Following the tests, Pakistan became the sole nuclear power in the Muslim world and the seventh country to possess nuclear weapons. Pakistan’s nuclear weapons have kept Indian aggression in check and have provided us security against an aggressive much larger nuclear neighbour.
Then, the things turned ugly when on January 31, 2004, Khan was arrested for transferring nuclear technology to other countries. On February 4, he read a statement on national television taking full responsibility for his operations and absolving the military and government of any involvement – a claim that many nuclear experts found difficult to believe. The next day, he was pardoned by Pakistan’s president, Pervez Musharraf, but was held under house arrest until 2009. That episode was ugly, and unfair and deeply hurtful to Dr Khan and his family. We fell into a trap and mistreated a great hero and benefactor of the country.
Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan was among such rare men who are taller than any tribute. A clear acknowledgment of his achievement ironically comes from American officials and scholars. Worthy of citation is the wistful remark by American CIA Chief George Tenet (1997-2004), who wrote in his memoirs At the Centre of the Storm, “Now I was going to ask him (President Musharraf) to take on a man (Dr Khan) who almost single-handedly transformed Pakistan into a nuclear power and who was considered a hero by the nation.”
Beyond science, Dr Khan had many dimensions to his personality — energetic, innovative and full of ideas, he was, above all, deeply humane and a man of faith and love for Islam and yet he maintained a healthy commitment to the common good. He felt most agitated by the sufferings of Muslims around the world. He would become emotional when talking about Muslims suffering atrocities in Bosnia or Kashmir or Palestine and the carnage visited upon them in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq or other parts of the world. Faith and strong belief were simply a part of his persona. He believed that logic must have its limits. Quintessentially he was a humanist committed to justice, peace and the common good.
The writer is a PhD scholar (English Literature). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org