by G Hari Kumar

Main Argument

The international community, was deeply troubled to learn that Pakistan was a primary source of nuclear enrichment technology, nuclear materials, and nuclear weapons designs to North Korea, Iran, and Libya.

The revelations have confronted Pakistan and the international community with two distinct problems. Pakistan faces a classic Scylla and Charybdis situation. If its past and present governments knew of the proliferation activities, it raises deep questions about Pakistan's nuclear stewardship. If, on the other hand, the erstwhile Musharraf government was unaware, that could be even worse because it indicates that for the first time in history all of the keys to a nuclear weapon - the supplier networks, the material, the enrichment technology, and the warhead designs - were out of state oversight and control. Either way, the international community is confronted with the growing failure of nonproliferation norms and supplier cartels to restrain proliferation. Two trends - secondary proliferation and the globalisation of manufacturing - have seriously weakened the ability of 1970s-era nonproliferation regimes to contain twenty-first century problems.


When the first stories of possible Pakistani proliferation broke in 2002, nuclear technology from Pakistan had been available to foreign customers for as many as fifteen years. Open sources indicate nuclear technology was shared with three countries: Iran, North Korea, and Libya. Press accounts also allude to unsuccessful courtships with Iraq and perhaps one other Arab country before the first Gulf War.

The story begins with us, when we conducted the 1974 "Peaceful Nuclear Experiment". Pakistan faced a daunting strategic challenge. India, which three years earlier had vivisected Pakistan into two with the creation of Bangladesh, now possessed a nuclear explosive device. Intended to counter the Chinese and Pakistan being always obsessed with an India-centric approach, in 1965, then-foreign minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, had predicted what would occur in such an event. "If India builds the bomb," he had promised, "we will eat grass or leaves, even go hungry, but we will get one of our own." Pakistan shifted massive resources to develop nuclear parity with its larger neighbour.

Pakistan faced obstacles, however, that India never did. The nuclear suppliers had suspended the technical assistance and reversed the lax export controls that had subsidised the Indian program. Shortly after India's test, for instance, Canada cut off all supplies of nuclear fuel to the Karachi Nuclear Power Plant. But sometimes it's better to be lucky than good. Pakistan had a second-rate metallurgist working for a huge European nuclear consortium who was willing to help. Thirteen years later, in 1987, that scientist would tell an Indian journalist that Pakistan had the ability to build nuclear weapons.

Abdul Qadeer Khan had undertaken postgraduate work in metallurgical engineering in West Germany and Belgium, receiving his Ph.D. from the Catholic University of Leuven in 1972. He found employment working for the Anglo-Dutch-German centrifuge enrichment partnership, URENCO. In 1974, Khan wrote Bhutto that he was willing to return and work for Pakistan. He left URENCO in 1976, bringing with him stolen centrifuge designs and, perhaps more importantly, a list of 100 companies that supplied centrifuge parts and materials. After a brief stint within the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission structure, he moved to the Engineering Research Laboratories, setting up a uranium enrichment plant in Kahuta. Within four years of returning home, his progress was significant enough that then-President Zia ul-Haq renamed the facility. Khan Research Laboratories (KRL) was born.

Khan skilfully manoeuvred around international export controls. He later said, "My long stay in Europe and intimate knowledge of various countries and their manufacturing firms was an asset. Within two years we had put up working prototypes of centrifuges and were going at full speed to build the facilities at Kahuta." The European firms were eager to do business: "They literally begged us to buy their equipment," Khan recalled. It was an impressive feat, something which Khan was well aware of. He boasted, "A country which could not make sewing needles, good bicycles or even ordinary durable metalled roads was embarking on one of the latest and most difficult technologies. We devised a strategy whereby we would go all out to buy everything that we needed in the open market to lay the foundation of a good infrastructure."

To create the internal infrastructure - the roaring cascades of centrifuges gradually enriching the uranium gas - this external procurement network was critical. Sometime in the late 1980s, Khan appears to have diverted the flow. He was still bringing in material and components for his nuclear enrichment process, but he appears to have ordered more than Pakistan needed. At the same time, Khan Research Laboratories was maturing. KRL scientists published papers, starting in 1987, on constructing more difficult centrifuges of maraging steel, rather than the earlier aluminium-based designs. In 1991, KRL scientists published details of how to etch special grooves into the bottom bearing of the centrifuge to incorporate lubricants. Both trends - over-ordering and technological evolution - left Khan with excess inventory. He had been forced to integrate an intentionally fragmented marketplace, and spent significant time and money to do so. Others would be willing to pay as well.

What, When, and To Whom?

From 1987 Pakistani nuclear technology was apparently available on the international black market. Iran is the first known instance of the proliferation of Pakistani know-how, whereas cooperation with Libya appears to be the most recent. Initial reports seemed to indicate that the scope of nuclear sharing was growing chronologically: Pakistan's sharing with Iran was fairly limited, Pakistani-North Korean cooperation was more significant, while Libya was in the midst of acquiring the most extensive "package" when it made the strategic decision to forego weapons in 2003.

Chronologically, cooperation with North Korea appears next, though the 1997 date, which comes from background briefings by Pakistani officials, is uncertain. While most analysts note Pakistani-North Korean cooperation on ballistic missile technology started as early as 1992, the consensus appears that Pakistan's transfer of uranium enrichment technology did not occur until 1997. Analysts attribute the policy change to the lack of foreign reserves in 1996 to pay for the delivery of the Nodong missile system, or a secret visit by then-Chief of Army Staff General Jehangir Karamat to Pyongyang in December 1997, or else they simply accept the date without explanation.

Pakistan has been surprisingly open, however, about the nature of the nuclear cooperation. Khan, in a signed statement, reportedly accepted responsibility for "supplying old and discarded centrifuge and enrichment machines together with sets of drawings, sketches, technical data and depleted Hexaflouride (UF6) gas to North Korea." And while there is debate about how recently cooperation ceased, Pakistan has admitted that technical assistance was provided after General Pervez Musharraf became Army chief in 1999.

Cooperation with Libya also supposedly began in 1997. The scale was extensive, approaching a "turnkey" nuclear weapons program.


Two theses are offered to explain the A.Q. Khan revelations. One, favoured by many in Washington (and Delhi), argues that proliferation on such a scale had to occur with the knowledge of the Pakistani government. The other, heard in Islamabad, contends that Khan was a "rogue actor" who abused the autonomy he gained from his earlier patriotic actions to pursue personal goals. The evidence is indeterminate.

The case against the Pakistani government is based largely on the duration and scale of the operation. It is framed in terms of rhetorical questions. How could Khan arrange for the import and export of such quantities of material - sometimes on military cargo plans - without the awareness of the Pakistan military? Were the Pakistani authorities unaware of the massive fortune Khan was amassing? Why did Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto go to Pyongyang in 1993, and General Karamat go there in 1997? Why didn't Pakistan more seriously follow up Western allegations in the late 1990s of Khan's malfeasance?

The Pakistani response is not wholly comforting. To miss some of the indicators of malfeasance - purchasing a hotel in West Africa and renaming it after your wife for instance, which Khan did - requires that the regulatory regime bungled and bungled badly. Pakistani officials claim they had designed their program to be covert and to deliver results. As a consequence, Khan was given broad autonomy and almost no oversight. Khan had the ability to order planes to pick up parts, get containers through customs, and travel to far-flung places because he had delivered results. In the face of widespread international opposition, he had delivered to Pakistan the strategic deterrent it so desperately sought.

Visits to Pyongyang by high-level Pakistani officials are a forgone conclusion. Pakistan and North Korea have had a pragmatic and broad arms-trading partnership for over a decade. Benazir Bhutto's 1993 visit most likely launched Pakistani-North Korean cooperation on liquid-fuel missile technology. Karamat's 1997 visit could have been to secure conventional arms cooperation, which also was occurring at the time.

Cooperation with North Korea appears more rational, ostensibly a ballistic missile technology for uranium enrichment swap. But by the time the barter supposedly occurred, in 1997, Pakistan had already acquired superior Chinese solid-fuelled missile technology. Further, while it is true that foreign exchange reserves sank to dire levels in 1996, it is a long leap to assume that Pakistan could find no other way to finance missile acquisitions than by a technology exchange. After all, in 1997, the Pakistani defence budget was nearly $3 billion, much of which had to be going to foreign goods of one sort or another. A uranium enrichment for plutonium separation technology swap made more sense.

WalMart of Nuclear Proliferation

Pakistan's civilian and military government (the two always run in parallel)  was unable to constrain a motivated actor working within the system from disseminating the most vital of national secrets, including to a country like Iran with which Islamabad has had historically troubled relations. The changes it has made to its oversight system may or may not be sufficient to fix the problems. More broadly, the global diffusion of nuclear information, combined with the globalisation of precision manufacturing, have seriously undercut the effectiveness of the supplier regimes.

When former  dictator Musharraf was interviewed by CNN, he trumpeted the ability of the Pakistan Army to account for "even a bolt of a rifle". Christiane Amanpour was quick to ask: if that were the case, how could nuclear technology be transferred without his knowledge. Musharraf's answer was disheartening and, to some extent, true: "Nuclear technology is in computers, on paper and in the minds of people." Implicitly, he was saying that what was intangible was uncontrollable.

Suspected 1960s-era Chinese warhead designs were at some point passed on to Pakistan. Many of the blueprints, designs, sketches, and instructions found in Pakistan have been copies of copies of copies. If the copies were passed on through middlemen, control of the information may have been irrevocably lost as it becomes increasingly difficult to prosecute both these rouge states.


Pakistan remains one of the most likely sources of nuclear risk globally—through theft of Pakistani nuclear material, unauthorized use of weapons during conflict, or intentional use in war. This stems from the large number of dangerous groups based in Pakistan, regional instability in its neighborhood, and the country’s increasing reliance on nuclear weapons rather than conventional military force for deterrence. The future of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program is the development of a larger arsenal with more types of delivery vehicles and an expanding role for nuclear arms in war fighting. Pakistan has also developed some semblance of constituent components necessary for a nuclear tipped battlefield role giving it a capability that India must account for in the event of crisis or conflict. In other words, even without fully developing a battlefield nuclear force, Pakistan has taken the steps necessary to create a battlefield “force in being” that can affect the decisions of India. (Researched and collated from internet sources)

Hari is a historian, author, thinker, military enthusiast, cyber geek and an incurable patriot. Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of IDN. IDN does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same