EDITORIAL: The man who made Pakistan's defence impregnable for all times to come passed away early Sunday morning as his lungs became dysfunctional due to excessive bleeding. Not only was he a top nuclear scientist, he was also an educationist and a philanthropist. His 85-year life is a saga of struggle to turn life into a meaningful proposition and service to the nation. As Pakistan's nuclear programme was restricted to peaceful usage of plutonium route while it desperately needed matching India's nuclear weapon programme he came along and succeeded in enriching uranium to weapon grade with a team of competent scientists and engineers that he assembled that also developed the missiles to deliver that load. And he led this effort almost singlehandedly for there were strong lobbies who were opposed to employing nuclear technology for nuclear weapons and had stuck to the plutonium route, first by choice and then under the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA's) pressure.
In May 1974, when India conducted its 'Smiling Buddha' Pokhran-I tests Dr Khan was an employee of a Dutch uranium enrichment lab. His love for the motherland prompted him to return home and offer his services. The then Prime Minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, accepted his offer. By 1976 he had succeeded in setting up a state-of-the-art Kahuta Research Laboratories (KRL), employing local talent and manufacturing centrifuges for enriching Urainium-238. Following a few cold tests, by 1986 the KRL had succeeded in making the deliverable nuclear device. So, in response to India's Pokhran-II tests, Pakistan's first nuclear test was conducted on May 28, 1998 in the Raskoh range of Chagai in Balochistan. The device, placed in a one kilometer-long tunnel with an overburden of 700m high mountain, was detonated by a tele-command station situated 10km away. It was followed by four more tests. The sixth test was conducted in the Kharan desert on May 30, 1998. The then prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, who had consistently resisted President Clinton's counter offers, congratulated the nation and recognised the achievements of scientists and engineers "for making it possible for the people of Pakistan to enter the next century with confidence in themselves and faith in their destiny".
But all through his lifelong struggle to make possible what was considered impossible for Pakistan, Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan received both good and bad comments; good from the people of Pakistan and the Muslim world and bad from a jealous scientists' lobby and indifferent, if not hostile, official quarters. With Z.A. Bhutto gone from the scene, the administration of President General Ziaul Haq was divided on Dr Khan's programme to enrich weapon-grade uranium. While President Ziaul Haq was pro-nuclear weapons, his number two, General K.M. Arif, was against the uranium enrichment route - his stance greatly influenced by the then Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) Chairman Munir Khan but counter-poised by the then two key ministers, Ghulam Ishaq Khan and Agha Shahi. Dr Khan came under pressure once again: he was at the centre of global nuclear proliferation storm in 2004, which was kicked up by the US at the behest of India and Israel. He was accused of helping North Korea, Libya and Iran with enrichment technology by President George W. Bush. According to some reports, President Gen Pervez Musharraf asked Dr Khan to publicly confess his indulgence in nuclear proliferation in the larger national interest, which he did obligingly and was detained at his residence in Islamabad. And in violation of the general's commitment, made in the presence of Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain and S. M. Zafar, the detention order was never revoked by the government. A court ended his detention in 2009, but his movements were kept under watch. That he was indifferently treated by the concerned authorities is a fact that came to light just a month before his death. He was in hospital as he tested positive for Covid-19, but neither the prime minister nor any of his cabinet colleagues inquired about his health. Rightly then, it was a surprise that the prime minister ordered all his ministers to attend Dr Khan's funeral prayers at Faisal Masjid.
Given India's numerical preponderance in areas of troops and weaponry, Pakistan was always under threat of aggression as was seen in 1965 and 1971. If India is now restrained from launching aggression it is because of the nuclear deterrence. The possession of nuclear weapons had forced New Delhi to agree with Islamabad to annual exchange of nuclear sites and weaponry and offer no-first-use of these weapons. But even then Pakistan has to be on alert, for the Modi government doesn't feel bound by the no-first-use offer to Pakistan. That contingency brings back under focus Dr AQ Khan's monumental contribution to national defence and security. In his demise the country has lost a national icon who painstakingly built an impregnable iron wall against foreign aggression.
Copyright Business Recorder, 2021