Home inFocus Pakistan and Nuclear Proliferation

Pakistan and Nuclear Proliferation

Simon Henderson Winter 2009

In recent years, governments, pundits, and Pakistan analysts have led the public to believe that Pakistan, through the activities of Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan (more commonly known as A.Q. Khan) and a few loyal lieutenants, passed on dangerous nuclear technology to Iran, Libya, North Korea, and perhaps other rogue states. This, however, is only part of the story. The role of successive governments of Pakistan must not be ignored.

New News on A.Q. Khan

For several years, the story surrounding A.Q. Khan had been something of a mystery. Since his arrest in 2004, his transgressions have never been explained in full. In 2008, after the political demise of General-cum-dictator President Pervez Musharraf, analysts believed that more information about Khan’s story would emerge. Indeed, Musharraf gave a hint that there was more to the story just before he left office, saying that the true story “is a confidential issue… a very serious matter, as Pakistan may suffer.”

However, under the new government of President Asif Ali Zardari, officials are equally tight-lipped. This suggests the Pakistan army did not want the truth to come out, and Zardari was prepared to support this.

A front-page article in The Washington Post on November 13, 2009, now reveals that Pakistan had been engaged in direct and extensive nuclear collaboration with China for many years. Pakistan accepted highly enriched uranium and the design for an atomic bomb in exchange for uranium enrichment technology that Beijing needed for its civilian nuclear power program. The transactions were the fruits of direct talks between the top leaders of both countries.

Another article in the magazine of the London Sunday Times on September 20, 2009, reported that the government of Pakistan, not just the A.Q. Khan network, had authorized direct nuclear assistance to Libya, Iran, and North Korea.

This, of course, contradicts the traditional narrative that the Pakistani scientist had gone rogue. In retrospect, Khan appears to have been a loyal and obedient public servant. Pakistani generals and prime ministers traded his talents, which included the making of an atomic bomb, as well as two different missiles capable of carrying a nuclear warhead.

The Sub-Plot

The 2004 arrest of A.Q. Khan is inextricably linked to the post-9/11 pressure Washington placed on Pakistan to support the U.S.-led efforts to wipe out al-Qaeda’s base in Afghanistan. Pakistan, of course, had been one of only three states to recognize the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Reports also indicated that the Pakistani ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence) was working with several jihadist groups in Afghanistan, including al-Qaeda. With concerns mounting in the United States over terrorist groups and their potential acquisition of nuclear weapons, the Pakistanis needed to do something to placate the United States.

Khan became the “fall guy.” Although he had twice been awarded Pakistan’s highest honor for leading the teams that created the country’s nuclear strike force, Khan was forced to make a televised confession about his alleged proliferation activities. Since then, for more than five years, he has been confined to his Islamabad home.

Khan’s incarceration can also be linked to a rivalry within the country’s nuclear program. For three decades, there was deep antagonism between the Khan Research Laboratories and the country’s official nuclear authority, the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission. Indeed, Pakistani leaders encouraged the rivalry between the teams trying to make highly enriched uranium and the other nuclear explosive, plutonium. Khan’s successes—not to mention his impatience with bureaucratic obstacles and rivals—earned him many enemies.

When Khan was arrested, official Pakistani and U.S. explanations of his activities made it seem that the news was surprising. However, this was hardly the case. Since 1979, the international media had reported on the activities of Khan’s purchasing network for Pakistan’s nuclear project. Khan and other parts of Pakistan’s nuclear establishment had skirted the law and evaded sanctions for decades.

Assisting Others

Khan first became known to most Westerners after Colonel Moammar Gadaffi’s 2003 announcement that Libya was giving up its weapons of mass destruction program. Libya, the world soon learned, had commissioned foreign businessmen associated with A.Q. Khan to build an enrichment plant. Benazir Bhutto, prime minister of Pakistan in the 1990s, was reportedly behind this deal.

The Libyan plant was not the only instance of nuclear trading on the part of Pakistan. Reportedly, President Zia ul-Haq initiated nuclear cooperation with Iran after a visit in 1986 from Ali Khamenei, then Iran’s president and now supreme leader. This relationship appears to have lasted for nearly two decades. As The Washington Post reported in 2003, “evidence discovered in a probe of Iran’s secret nuclear program points overwhelmingly to Pakistan as the source of crucial technology that put Iran on a fast track toward becoming a nuclear weapons power.”

Khan is also known to have assisted North Korea. The relationship with North Korea first began with Pakistan’s need for artillery in its ongoing confrontations with India. The relationship grew warmer as Pakistan and North Korea realized that both countries had nuclear needs the other could fulfill.

Having built an atomic bomb for Pakistan by 1984, Khan had no means of being able to deliver it. One version was adapted for use by Pakistan’s American-supplied F-16 fighter jets. Another was adapted for the Ghaznavi missile, the first Pakistan-produced version of China’s M-11 rocket. It was not until Khan won authorization to buy manufacturing rights for North Korea’s No-dong missile that Pakistan had a missile capable of reaching nearly all of neighboring India, which first tested its nuclear bomb in 1974.

The North Korean missile, known in Pakistan as the Ghauri (and, in Iran, as the Shehab-3), was manufactured at the Kahuta enrichment facility outside Islamabad. While at Kahuta, North Korean scientists helped fit the nuclear warhead to the Ghauri and also learned about centrifuges.

In his 2006 biography, Musharraf said Khan had shipped examples of centrifuges to North Korea. What Musharraf did not note was that Khan did so upon the instruction of the Pakistan military.

As a result of Pakistani assistance, North Korea now likely has a functioning enrichment plant. Pakistan has not, however, admitted its existence to U.S. or international diplomats negotiating the country’s de-nuclearization.

Additional questions linger about possible Pakistani assistance to other states. This is hard to imagine. When China could not find a way to make its Pakistan-supplied centrifuges work properly to enrich uranium, it replaced them with Russian centrifuges. What happened to the Pakistani centrifuges? They were never returned to Pakistan. Could they have ended up in other states? Analysts believe this certainly possible.

Understanding Pakistan

What was been Pakistan’s motivation for assisting these rogue states? Smooth-talking generals and politicians from Pakistan seldom talk in public about their country’s real perspectives and true fears.

Many analysts would posit that India lies at the core of Pakistan’s fears. Indeed, the border and sovereignty dispute in Kashmir has festered since independence from Britain in 1947.

But it is more complicated than that. Many Pakistanis were traumatized by the secession of Bangladesh, formerly known as East Pakistan, in 1971. For one, this break-off dented the notion that Pakistan was the state for the sub-continent’s Muslims. Pakistanis also felt let down when the United States did not intervene to counter India’s invasion of the rebellious East Pakistan. In the aftermath, top Pakistanis decided to drop the United States as the nation’s principal ally and instead develop links with China, which also considered India as a rival and adversary.

The Bangladesh disaster also prompted Pakistanis to take a closer look at long-standing questions about whether Pakistan was a secular or Muslim state. The disgraced top army officers who were blamed for the humiliating defeat in East Pakistan were alcohol-drinking secularists. Soon, the military went dry and the younger officers were notably more Islamic.

The Islamization of Pakistan continued during the U.S.-backed war against the Soviet army in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Washington channeled aid through the ISI, which cultivated hard-line Islamist fighters to be the recipients of American and Saudi financial backing. Some of these mujahedin (jihad fighters) became the backbone of the al-Qaeda terrorist organization, but others also became part of a formidable fighting force at the disposal of the Pakistanis.

The ISI’s decision to back these forces stemmed from their realization that well-trained insurgent fighters could also be used to counter Indian forces in Kashmir, offsetting India’s otherwise huge conventional military advantage. While Pakistan steadily added to its nuclear arsenal throughout the mid-1980s with the help of A.Q. Khan and his team, its generals deployed these insurgent forces to keep India occupied on the flashpoint border of Kashmir.

Islam and Pakistani Identity

Today, in the offices of tea-drinking Pakistan army generals, the idea of Islam as a core tenet of the nation’s identity, and as the key foundation of its otherwise fragile nationhood, has only gained strength. This, to a certain extent, explains the logic behind Pakistan’s cooperation with Iran; an Islamic friend was always better than a non-Islamic one. The same logic explains the deal with Libya.

What does this mean for possible future assistance to nuclear programs around the Muslim world? Pakistani officials declare that the nation’s proliferation days are over. But the full story is still emerging. It is hard to dismiss the possibility that nuclear proliferation is a card that Pakistan might still play in the future, even without Dr. A.Q. Khan.

Simon Henderson, a former journalist who covered Pakistan in the 1970s, is the Baker Fellow and Director of the Gulf and Energy Policy Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.