AQ Khan and Nuclear Bomb : Part IX : Kahuta explodes on world stage, China becomes our friend and US tries to push us back

On 4 April 1978, Khan revealed to Henny over dinner that he had something extraordinary to share with her. A world-class secret in fact. He had fed a sample of UF6 through his P-1 centrifuge and produced enriched uranium. “I can say with complete confidence that I was among the very first who knew that Pakistan had broken the monopoly of the Western world,” Henny remembered.The following day, Khan sent an official memo to his patrons, Ghulam Ishaq Khan, by now the finance minister, and Agha Shahi, the foreign minister.4 But by the time they received this news, Zia had usurped their authority over the nuclear program, appointing a general to run it.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had always been wary of the military getting their hands on the nuclear trigger. No military officers were invited to the Multan conference of 1972, and the military’s only connection to Kahuta was organizing its building and security while the ISI prowled Europe for components. But within weeks of Bhutto’s conviction, Zia disbanded the civilian committee, and placed General Khalid Mahmud Arif, his chief of staff, in charge. Everything that Khan would do from now on came under the military’s purview.

[trying to bring expatriate trained pakistanis back home] Again, Khan asked Aziz to come back to Pakistan, but Aziz could not be prised from Montreal, and so many others proved intransigent that Khan asked General Zia to sanction a series of advertisements to lure them back. Carried in newspapers around the world, they promised large salaries and new homes in Islamabad. Applicants were told to contact their local Pakistan embassy and say they were applying for work at the Institute of Industrial Automation (IIA) in Islamabad, the same address used by Khan for component deliveries. “Mention that this is a government department and this is to encourage the industrial progress,” Khan advised prospective employees.16 In his letters to Aziz he asked him to recommend other expatriate Pakistanis, and Aziz duly sent back lists of delegates from conferences he had attended in the US and Canada. Peter Griffin recalled Khan’s staffing crisis. “He could only ever offer a meager government salary, but he’d tempt people by saying we’ll build you a house that will be yours forever, a pension and travel all paid. Khan fought a continual battle against mediocrity, even among his most senior aides.”

But Khan would soon face a more pressing problem. On 8 October 1978 he wrote to Aziz: “Perhaps you must have read in some newspapers that the English government is objecting about the inverters. Work is progressing but the frustration is increasing. It is just like a man who has waited 30 years but cannot wait for a few hours after the marriage ceremony.” The British government had finally tripped over Khan’s network, but not through diligence. It was envy that exposed the Pakistan connection. Having sent a shipment of twenty inverters to Pakistan, Ernst Piffl had lost the contract after A. Q. Khan suspected he was being cheated on the price. The contract went to Peter Griffin in Swansea, and Piffl blew the whistle, tipping off Frank Allaun, Labor MP for Salford East in northwest England, claiming that the components were being exported to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons industry. When Allaun, who was also a renowned peace campaigner, began asking questions in the House of Commons in July 1978, Tony Benn, the minister for energy, announced an inquiry. He froze all further shipments to Pakistan, trapping Khan’s inverters in the UK.

The House of Commons inquiry found that the previous December, Piffl had ordered twenty inverters from Emerson Industrial Controls which had been shipped from its factory in Swindon to the Special Works Organization in Rawalpindi. A former former Emerson engineer told the inquiry that everyone at the Swindon plant had suspected the inverters were for uranium enrichment but nobody had bothered to stop the shipment as “they were convinced that the Pakistanis would never know how to operate such sophisticated equipment, and that the inverters would all sit in their packing cases until they rusted away.” Only after the first boxes reached Kahuta in August 1978 and Khan’s technicians sent a telex requesting sophisticated modifications did Emerson realize it had underestimated its customers.

The export control amendments would make it far harder for anyone to trade with Khan from the UK. Peter Griffin, who had made inquiries with Emerson about two more shipments of inverters after he won the contract off Piffl, was refused an export license under the new legislation. “It was now impossible to do business without being hassled,” Griffin recalled. “I would get my usual telex from Khan and the next day a telex from UK Customs with lists of all the new things going onto the export control list, which coincidentally were all the things Khan had just asked for. Customs started causing me endless headaches. I told the tax and customs people that I was never curious and never asked questions. I did everything within export control legislation. I was a businessman. I never sold a bullet, never sold anything that would kill anyone. When the Brits tried to appeal to my better nature and said, ‘This is nuclear stuff that you’re contributing to,’ I said, ‘As far as I am concerned A. Q. Khan’s work is for peaceful purposes only and I believe that all countries have an unalienable right to pursue nuclear technology for peaceful purposes. I’ll stop just as soon as you stop selling small arms, handcuffs and torture equipment to African countries.’ ” From now on this would be Griffin’s justification for all the work he would do for Khan.

Things were so hot in Britain that Griffin and Abdus Salam decided to move, not just out of their old neighborhoods, but out of Europe. “Salam said to me, let’s go to Dubai, a free-trade zone,” remembered Griffin. “UK exports to Dubai were not so heavily watched and from there could go anywhere. Salam said he would do it only if he could go to Dubai first, leaving me in the UK to arrange stuff.”

Later Khan revealed another sensational breakthrough: he was attempting to link several centrifuges together for the first time, creating a mini-cascade, a gateway to increasing the enrichment of uranium towards weapons grade. Work on the big plant was also speeding up, with the main laboratory buildings, centrifuge hall B-1 and administration block almost finished. “We hope by April many groups [of centrifuges] would be transferred there,” he wrote, if he could get more staff. “It is the bad luck of this country that people do not want to stay here. When one leaves he does not want to come back.”

By the end of March, his centrifuge cascades up and running, Khan was desperate for a regular supply of UF6. Referring to the German uranium conversion plant that would guarantee this, but still had not arrived, Khan wrote, using his unsubtle “Operation Butter Factory” code: “By the end of the year the factory should start working, and should start providing ‘cake and bread.’ Here there is a shortage of ‘food’ and we need these things very badly.” On 28 March 1979, Khan enjoyed the last day of his life that he would spend in relative obscurity. That night Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen (ZDF), a West German television channel, broadcast a documentary unmasking Abdul Qadeer Khan as the head of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program, which was being built using centrifuge blueprints stolen from a Dutch plant at Almelo. The story exploded in Europe and North America, forcing the Dutch government to launch an investigation.

The BVD informed ministers that Khan had been stealing data for months before he left Holland in December 1975 and had probably obtained all the designs for both the CNOR and the G-2 centrifuges. This inquiry also revealed one more disaster, which until then had not been known by anyone outside the consortium: that URENCO scientists had been working on a successor to the sophisticated G-2, a super-centrifuge known as the 4-M, and that its blueprint was also likely to be in Pakistan.

Britain and Germany, Holland’s partners in the URENCO consortium, were livid. Both wanted to know why The Hague had not alerted them in 1975 when suspicions had first been raised by Frits Veerman, or in 1976 when Khan had written to FDO staff for technical information, or in 1977 when FDO contractors in Holland were known to have sold Khan components for the discontinued CNOR. Israel, too, demanded answers.

In Islamabad the furor had done little to slow down Kahuta’s progress. In late March 1979, Khan was called to brief Zia and brought with him a ten-page letter in which he argued that Zia should commute Bhutto’s death sentence. He had stayed up half the previous night preparing it.


The man who had negotiated Pakistan’s special relationship with China was diplomat Agha Shahi. He confirmed that Saxena’s deduction was correct: “1965 was critical for us,” he recalled. “We made a pact with Beijing that ushered in decades of assistance we could not have got elsewhere.” In 1971, Pakistan and China became even closer when Shahi led calls for the People’s Republic to win a seat at the UN Security Council, where Chiang Kai-shek was the US-backed sitting representative of the Chinese people even though he had been exiled to Taiwan. Shahi, then Pakistan’s ambassador to the United Nations, said: “We formed a steering committee of thirteen countries. On the eve of the debate George H. W. Bush, who was US ambassador to the UN, came to me and said, ‘Agha, don’t kick out Chiang Kai-shek.’ I sent a cable to our ambassador in Beijing, saying, ‘Look, it’s touch and go, some people are recognizing the People’s Republic, some are sticking with Taiwan. Tell the Beijing delegates to step up the diplomatic lobby.’ ” The following day Shahi’s side won the vote and the People’s Republic of China joined the UN for the first time.

General K. M. Arif also recalled the special relationship.47 “Outwardly we are very different. They are a godless society with no free market or elections. But I cannot think of a single incident over the last fifty years where China interfered in the internal politics of Pakistan or vice versa. China gave freely with no strings. No money was paid for this assistance until President Zia went to China in 1977 and said, ‘We are grateful but we should be charged.’ China said, ‘No, Mr. President, we cannot forget the assistance you gave us when we were out of the UN. We were alone and you helped us.’ ”

British and American suppliers had cancelled contracts and the US Congress had reimposed sanctions on Pakistan two days after Bhutto was hanged, finally triggering the Symington amendment which barred aid to countries illicitly enriching uranium. “We are sorry because we needed only six more months,” wrote Khan, feeling the pinch.

But Khan had a plan B. Sensing a time when foreign parts would dry up altogether, he had been ingenious, fitting out machine shops at Kahuta to reverse-engineer centrifuge components based on the ones he had already bought in Europe, using design molds provided by his European contractors. Although China could help with raw materials, bomb and missile designs, its uranium enrichment program was based on diffusion, completely different from centrifuge technology, in which it had no expertise. Khan was already on the road to self-sufficiency with a state-of-the-art centrifuge production line and looking forward to the time when Pakistan could even become a supplier. “Afterwards we will sell these things to [North America] and will also obtain your services and will earn the foreign exchange because our price will be half the price from your side,” he wrote to Aziz.

Khan had done it so quickly that everyone was trying to catch up,” remembered Gallucci. “I first heard of Pakistan enrichment in January 1978 when I became a division chief at the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research. By the time I moved down the corridor to policy planning the following year, Khan was virtually self-sufficient.”

Gallucci was asked to put together a color-coded diagram showing what a Pakistani centrifuge looked like and where each part had come from. “The levels of collusion and professed ignorance among European companies was staggering. Some even had staff based at Kahuta.” Even while the Dutch inter-ministerial inquiry had been under way, the Pakistanis had continued placing orders for Dutch components, including steel tubing from Van Doorne Transmissie, which attempted to export the shipment in July 1979.

Within weeks, Kahuta was front-page news anyway, after two Western diplomats were beaten up for straying too close to the enrichment plant. Pol le Gourrierec, the French ambassador, and Jean Forlot, his first secretary, had decided to follow Gallucci’s lead and take a look for themselves. This time the Pakistani security guards had not reacted so politely. For twenty-four hours General Zia said nothing, before contacting the French government and wryly advising them that “the incident might not have taken place had the ambassador been flying the French flag from the bonnet of the car.” Exasperated, the French responded pettily by refusing to invite Zia to a forthcoming Bastille Day celebration, and as a sign of solidarity the Yugoslav ambassador protested “by taking his official car—flying the flag—up the Kahuta road and driving extremely slowly past the wall protecting the large construction site.” The score-settling theatricals belied the scale of the unfolding crisis.

All imports now ceased. “They are even stopping nails and screws,” wrote a frustrated Khan to Aziz. But thanks to Khan’s ingenuity, it did not matter much as “we are making the inverters and transformers ourselves.” Having been identified as the ringmaster in Pakistan’s nuclear operation, Khan also resumed his habit of writing angry letters to European newspapers and magazines. “I want to question the bloody holier-than-thou attitudes of the Americans and the British,” he railed in one. “These bastards are God-appointed guardians of the world to stockpile hundreds of thousands of nuclear warheads and have the God-given authority of carrying out explosions every month. But if we start a modest program, we are the Satans, the devils.”

Although no decision was taken, when the New York Times quoted a White House official as saying that sabotage or a commando raid were being considered as options to prevent Pakistan from exploding a bomb, Pakistan air force MiG-19 and Mirage fighters were scrambled over Islamabad, while Kahuta was ringed with French-supplied Crotale missiles and anti-aircraft guns. Days later, on 14 August, Aziz wrote to Khan from Montreal to report another debacle. Pakistani scientists living in the US and Canada had been accused of supplying materials to Khan and were under investigation.

US’s diplomatic offensive

In October 1979, Gerard Smith called for one last diplomatic offensive. Pakistan’s foreign minister, Agha Shahi, and General K. M. Arif had been invited to Washington and Smith proposed to sandbag them. Agha Shahi was expecting a warm welcome, convinced that the Afghan coup and the fall of the shah had increased Pakistan’s leverage. But as soon as he and Arif arrived, he realized that all the Americans wanted to talk about was Pakistan’s nuclear program.

Shahi met first with President Carter and then with Carter’s hard-nosed national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski. “I said to him, you are so against proliferation and India has blown up the bomb, so why not give a guarantee to non-nuclear states that they would be subject to a Security Council nuclear umbrella?” Shahi recalled. It was the same request Kissinger had refused point-blank in 1974, and Shahi fared no better. “So, then we had the big meeting,” Shahi said. “On one side of the table there was me, General Arif, Sahabzada Yaqub Khan, our Washington ambassador, and General Jilani, our secretary general for defense. On the US side was Cyrus Vance, the secretary of state, Warren Christopher, his deputy, and more than ten CIA people. I turned to Yaqub Khan and said, ‘They must think we are the Soviet Union.’ ”

Christopher did most of the talking, Shahi recalled. “He told me he wanted Pakistan to sign the NPT [Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty]. I said we would sign gladly if India signed. He said, ‘You must sign anyway.’ I said, ‘No. India poses a nuclear and conventional threat to us.’ Christopher said, ‘We want you to give a commitment that you will not transfer this technology to another country.’ I said, ‘We can give this guarantee.’ He said, ‘You must commit not to carry out a nuclear explosion.’ I said, ‘To be frank we have not reached that state of capability but if and when we do, we will consider the pros and cons.’ ”

Cyrus Vance stood and led Shahi into a side room, where he was introduced to Gerard Smith. “I was totally shocked. He was the most formidable US negotiator. Smith said to me, ‘You think you are improving your security but you have no idea how far ahead the Indians are. They can utterly destroy you. Do you know you are entering the valley of death?’ I was taken aback. I said, ‘Mr. Smith, I am at a great disadvantage talking to you, as you are the foremost expert on nuclear weapons. But it seems to me you don’t have to be a nuclear weapons expert to understand the strategic importance of having one. The value lies in its possession, sir, and not in its use.’ ” A terrible silence descended upon the room.

Gordon Corera, “Shopping for Bombs: Nuclear Proliferation, Global Insecurity, and the Rise and Fall of the A.Q. Khan Network”


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