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Photo Source: Dawn

Pakistan Reader# 226, 11 October 2021

Dr AQ Khan: Between a national hero and a nuclear proliferator



Dr Khan may have died a disappointed man on how the State treated him, but he would remain a hero for the nation

Dr Khan may have died a disappointed man on how the State treated him, but he would remain a hero for the nation

D. Suba Chandran
Professor and Dean, School of Conflict and Security Studies, NIAS

Undoubtedly for Pakistan, cutting across party lines and provincial boundaries, Dr AQ Khan is a national hero. Widely revered as the father of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb, he is celebrated within the country as the defender of security, especially vis-à-vis India, by providing much needed nuclear deterrence. In his mid-80s, Dr Khan passed away on 10 October, due to COVID-19 related complications. He was unwell during the recent months and has been facing health issues.

Dr Khan received a state funeral, buried with a guard of honour, and the national flag flowing at half-mast.

What would be Dr Khan’s legacy? There is a huge divide in how the people of Pakistan worship him as a national hero and how the rest of the world looks at him as a core of an illegal nuclear network and proliferation.

The Rise of Dr Khan: What we know and what we don’t?
The rise of AQ Khan was a fairy tale. With a degree in metallurgy from the University of Karachi in the late 1960s, he moved to Europe for higher studies. He received a post-graduate degree from the Netherlands in metallurgy and also a PhD from Brussels in the early 1970s.

The 1974 nuclear tests and the “eat grass but will have nuclear weapons” statement by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto changed the course for Dr Khan. Initially, he approached Bhutto; the latter gave space for Khan to establish in Pakistan. Later in the 1970s and during the 1980s, when the military took over Pakistan, Khan’s research activities should have shifted from civilian oversight to the military. Since the late 1970s, his research activities should have been under the purview of the Establishment. The 1980s should have been the most crucial for Dr Khan and his laboratories and also for their links with the Establishment.

Though there were serious concerns about Dr Khan’s efforts at the global level, especially in the US and Europe, the American engagement in the Afghan jihad in the 1980s forced them to look the other way. When the US administrations in the 1990s attempted to make a course correction in the 1990s with the Pressler Amendment, it was too late. By then, Dr Khan was well entrenched with his research, laboratories, and the Establishment in Pakistan.

When India conducted its second series of nuclear tests in 1998, Pakistan followed suit. Instantly, Dr Khan became a household name, a national icon, and a defender of Pakistan. By the late 1990s, after its founding father, Jinnah, Dr Khan should have been one of the most revered leaders of Pakistan. The late 1990s should have been Dr Khan’s absolute peak in terms of his popularity with both the state and the nation of Pakistan.

The Fall of Dr Khan: What we know and what we don’t?
After the 1990s, then came Dr Khan’s fall. Especially from the State.

When his rise peaked in the late 1990s, efforts to unearth his linkages with other clandestine nuclear and missile programmes across the world should have begun. Led by multiple institutions – government and academic, Dr Khan’s external linkages from Libya to North Korea were under probe. Questions were raised about how Dr Khan got the original designs from Europe. These international probes, led to his downfall. Like his rise, his fall was also dramatic.

When he made that confession in February 2004, the entire nation was shattered. Earlier in January 2004, he was arrested by the Musharraf regime for illegally transferring nuclear technologies and secrets to Libya, Iran and North Korea. His confession was on national television, broke the hearts of millions inside Pakistan. Though, years later, in 2008, he did regret confessing; however, the damage was done. The Musharraf regime placed him under house arrest in 2004. His movement was monitored and was limited; his meetings were also restricted. From a national hero flying across the continents, he became a prisoner in his own house. His movements became limited to court appearances and a few personal events.

During the 2010s, Dr Khan was thoroughly dissatisfied with the system. He wanted to be a free man, deciding his daily engagements. He appeared in numerous court hearings, asking for the same either directly or through his lawyers. From Gen Musharraf to successive democratic governments under Zardari and Sharif, the government kept Dr Khan at a distance.

Perhaps, the Establishment controlled his schedule, with the civilian administration had less to do. And this is something, rest of the world would not know – about Dr Khan’s linkages within Pakistan with the Establishment. While there have been numerous probes into the external linkages of Dr Khan, there were less or no internal investigations inside Pakistan on how Dr Khan and his labs worked with the Establishment. How the latter took over the national asset and outside the civilian control. Even if there were, they were silenced or never saw the light of the day.

A section believes Dr Khan died a hero for not only giving Pakistan the nuclear deterrence but also never revealing the nature of his linkages – internal and external. Perhaps, that is one of the reasons why he was kept under house arrest, despite his legal protests. His numerous petitions to the courts could never get him to be a “free man”, though for the government, he was a free man. In February 2009, the Islamabad High Court declared him to be a “free citizen”, be he never was free.

While Imran and his cabinet paid huge tribute to Dr Khan, he died as a disappointed man. A month before his death, in September 2021, he was admitted to the hospital and was unhappy about Imran Khan and his cabinet not inquiring about his health. Dawn quoted him on 13 September: “I am quite disappointed that neither the prime minister nor any of his cabinet members has inquired after my health.” Earlier in August 2021, after contacting COVID-19, he was admitted to the Khan Research Laboratories Hospital. His condition has deteriorated ever since. He even complained of not getting oxygen regularly. Dawn quoted him: “Sometimes they (doctors) give me oxygen and sometimes not.”


He was able to return home later in September, only to get further complications last Saturday.


He is buried in Islamabad. Along with him, some questions. He may have died a disappointed man on how the State treated him, but he would remain a hero for the nation. Let him rest in peace. 

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