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BHOPAL TO TIMBUKTOO
- Why the US will use gentle persuasion with the last rogue

To get to Timbuktoo, you fly to Casablanca in Morocco. From there you fly to Bamako in Mali. Then you drive down to Timbuktoo — or charter a plane to get there if you have the money. And find a room in Hendrina Khan Hotel. Hendrina is the wife of Abdul Qadeer Khan, the man who constructed the Pakistani nuclear weapons.

Abdul Qadeer Khan originated in a place much closer to us: he was born in 1935 in Bhopal. His family did not leave for Pakistan on Partition; he might well have ended up in the company of Bhabha, Vikram Sarabhai, M.R. Srinivasan and Chidambaram. But he left for Pakistan in 1952, and studied engineering at Karachi University. He must have taken a break after graduation, and done quite a few jobs. Eventually he migrated to Germany, and finally got a doctorate from the Catholic University of Leuvain in Belgium at the relatively late age of 37.

That was the year after India inflicted a humiliating defeat on Pakistan in Bangladesh. It rankled; Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who had to go to Simla and sign what was virtually a declaration of defeat, felt it keenly. That was when he decided to teach India a lesson. His bitterness turned to alarm when Mrs Indira Gandhi exploded a crude nuclear bomb in Pokhran in 1974. To Bhutto, it seemed as if this development of new lethal capability by India left Pakistan defenceless; the only answer was to make a Pakistani bomb.

A search was launched for Pakistanis abroad who could help, and it ended with the discovery of Abdul Qadeer Khan. For after completing his doctorate, he had joined the FDO, a physics laboratory in Amsterdam. The power reactors in Europe ran on enriched uranium — that is, uranium with a higher proportion of the isotope U-235 than is found in natural ores. Devices that require concentrated energy — for instance, nuclear submarines — use a mixture, most of which is U-235. But power reactors are bigger and do not need such a concentration; a mixture with 3 per cent U-235 is good enough for them. Natural ores contain less than 1 per cent uranium. The way enriched uranium was produced in Europe was to rotate the mixture at 100,000 revolutions per minute. Such extreme speed requires powerful motors and extremely precise engineering of the equipment. The European countries had set up a centrifugal separation plant in Almelo in Holland. Stork FDO, a laboratory which specialized in materials testing and calibration, was a sub-contractor in fabricating this plant.

That is where Pakistani spies found Abdul Qadeer Khan. On their persuasion, he gave them secret blueprints. Finally, in early 1976, he suddenly left his job in Amsterdam. Bhutto put him in charge of the Pakistani nuclear programme. The Dutch put him on trial in absentia, and he was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment by a Dutch court in 1983; later the sentence was overturned on a technicality. Back in Pakistan, Abdul Qadeer Khan set up the Kahuta Research Laboratories — later renamed Khan Research Laboratories. It concentrated on producing enriched uranium. By 1986, Pakistan was reported to be producing enriched uranium. Chinese technicians were reported to have been at KRL. There is also a report that while Khan was travelling abroad, a Western spy agency broke into his luggage and found designs that looked like being Chinese. But Khan claimed often that the making of the bomb was an entirely Pakistani achievement; all that they had used from outside were books, articles and research material.

By 1990, the United States of America got seriously worried about Pakistan’s nuclear programme, and stopped all military and economic aid. This act of rejection removed US influence on Pakistan; there were no further constraints on Pakistan’s trading its nuclear knowhow. Pakistan traded it for missile technology from North Korea.

After the twin nuclear ceremonies of India and Pakistan in 1998, the US got particularly worried. It deduced that unlike India, Pakistan had developed second-generation miniaturized nuclear weapons, and it had to reckon with the possibility that lethal nuclear technologies may have leaked out to other “rogue” nations. It put pressure on President Musharraf; in March 2001, he removed Khan from KRL and made him his personal scientific advisor.

The US’s blitzkrieg in Iraq opened the eyes of “rogue” nations to the potential costs of defiance. Meanwhile, Iranian anti-government groups brought information to the US government that Iran had built two plants in the desert to make nuclear material. One was visited by International Atomic Energy Agency officials in March, 2003. According to Seymour Hersh, they found, behind a wall of boxes, centrifuges made in Pakistan. American officials visited Libyan nuclear facilities soon after, and found Pakistani centrifuges there as well. In December last year, General Gaddafi came clean. IAEA found the Libyans had bought centrifuges of Pakistani design, fabricated in Malaysia, from an intermediary in Dubai.

That is when the full extent of Abdul Qadeer Khan’s proliferation of nuclear technology came out in the open. If he had been an Iraqi, the US would have used his activities to justify invasion. But because he was a Pakistani, he received a presidential pardon — no doubt with the approval of the US.

In theory, the nuclear powers are against proliferation. In practice, what happens to proliferators depends on who they are, and who their friends are. Thus the first proliferator was France. The French invaded Egypt to capture the Suez Canal in 1956, together with the British and the Israelis. President Eisenhower was furious, and quickly made the invaders withdraw. That gave France a guilty conscience vis-à-vis Israel, which it salved by giving Israel uranium enrichment technology. That adventure taught Israel the value of being on the right side of the US. It went about being an ally of the US with a vengeance. It did it so well that absolutely nothing — no massacres of Palestinians, no bombing of Iraqi nuclear facility, no Yom Kippur war — could shake America’s support. Three years before Mrs Indira Gandhi exploded India’s little (4-6 kiloton) bomb in 1974 — and just before she invaded East Pakistan — she went and signed an alliance with the Soviet Union. She made sure that the Soviet Union would issue the right threat if India came under pressure. So she got away with her nuclear ceremony.

Pakistan was not so clever. After their 1998 nuclear ceremonies, the US put both India and Pakistan through a wringer. It did not matter to India since it had a strong balance of payments and was not dependent on the US for anything crucial. But the Pakistani economy was pretty fragile, and suffered grievously as a result of US sanctions. That is why Nawaz Sharif met Vajpayee in Lahore, to secure his eastern front. It did not work. The usurper that followed him, Pervez Musharraf, was luckier and perhaps cleverer. When the chance offered itself in the form of 9/11, he asked to become an ally of the US; and the US, intent on taking over Afghanistan, accepted him.

That leaves North Korea, the last rogue. The US is handling it with kid gloves because of its ally, China. The US once tangled with North Korea, in 1951; that brought it into conflict with China, and it nearly lost South Korea. That is why the most powerful weapon it will use against North Korea is gentle persuasion.

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