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Pakistan's Bomb: Have It Your Way | The Nation

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Pakistan's Bomb: Have It Your Way

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This article was originally published on TomDispatch.

Buying 'Ducks' from Russia

About the Author

Catherine Collins
Catherine Collins, a former Chicago Tribune reporter, is now a Washington-based writer. She is co-author, with Douglas...
Douglas Frantz
Douglas Frantz, the former managing editor of the Los Angeles Times and a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, is a senior...

It was an exciting time for Pakistan's fledgling nuclear program. On June 4, 1978, A.Q. Khan wrote to Aziz Khan, describing early tests of his centrifuge designs, referring to the process of substituting helium for uranium gas as putting "air in the machine."

June 4 is a historical day for us. On that day we put "air" in the machine and the first time we got the right product and its efficiency was the same as the theoretical... As you have seen, my team consists of crazy people. They do not care if it is day or night. They go after it with all their might. The bellows have arrived and like this we can increase the speed of our work.

Khan's international nuclear shopping spree was soon on display as he wrote proudly to his Canadian friend just a week later to recount the trip made by a member of his clandestine procurement network to Japan to obtain some critical, though unexplained help. "Colonel Majeed is back from Japan and thanks God all the problems have been solved. Next month the Japanese would come here and all the work would be done under their supervision."

The following month, he wrote Aziz Khan about one of his Pakistani proteges: "Dr. Mirza is back from America. He had gone to get the training for the control room of the air conditioning plant." In the same letter, he announced that "the plant of Switzerland has arrived," probably a reference to a specialized pumping system to move uranium gas in and out of the centrifuges during enrichment.

In August, the scientist told Aziz Khan that Colonel Majeed was on the road again, "leaving for Germany, England and Switzerland. He would be looking for cable and sub panels. Our friend from Kuwait will join us in November and in this way we will not have to worry about generators and emergency power supply. He has 15 years experience." Within weeks, Khan wrote enthusiastically that "a German team was here. After staying five days, they went back. It was quite a busy time."

A.Q. Khan was also in the hunt himself. Mentioning that he had sent a cable to California, he wrote in the fall of 1978 that, "if our two units are ready, then myself and Dr. Mirza would come for thanks and maybe we could meet you." The "two units" was probably a reference to two huge air conditioners that Khan bought from an unidentified U.S. company.

In the spring of 1979, Khan would explain: "Dr. Alam, Dr. Hashmi and myself are going to Germany and Switzerland for two or three days. We have to buy some material there and then we will return through London."

Khan's project was seen abroad as a potentially profitable market, and the Russians, too, were rushing to sell their wares. Using a primitive code, Khan wrote: "Hopefully, in winter there will be ducks from Russia. This is a big job. Now the emergency generators are going to be installed very soon."

But all was not perfect. During the summer of 1978, a British member of Parliament asked why a British subsidiary of the American Emerson Electric Co. was selling Pakistan the same high-frequency inverter that Britain was using in its own uranium-enrichment project--and by the fall, shipments to Pakistan had been stopped. Khan complained that a German supplier had tipped the British off when he did not get the nod on a business deal.

That man from the German team was unethical. When he did not get the order from us, he wrote a letter to a Labour party member and questions were asked in Parliament. Work is still progressing satisfactorily but the frustration is increasing. It is just like a man who waited for 30 years but cannot wait for a few hours after the marriage ceremony.

By the spring of the following year, Khan's team was feeling the strain. He once again wrote Aziz Khan about his troubles in a clumsy code:

For such a long time, no one has taken a single day's holiday. Everybody is working very hard so that by the end of the year, the factory should start working and should start providing cake and bread. Here there is shortage of food and we need those things very badly. From everywhere our food is being stopped.

Khan's success in obtaining nuclear material abroad did not go unnoticed. American intelligence watched his procurement operation and U.S. officials occasionally complained in public, prompting Aziz Khan to write in June 1979: "There is no doubt that you guys made people here sleepless.... These days you are famous all over the world."

In August of 1979, still struggling, Khan wrote his friend of a deal that he could not consummate in Canada, probably a reference to difficulties obtaining a specialized type of inverter essential to operating the uranium enrichment plant.

You must be reading that your countrymen have decided to drink our blood. The way they are after us, it looks as if we have killed their mother. Their building of castles in the air has beaten the Arabian Nights. There is lots of pressure, but I have trust in God in doing my work. I am thinking, if I finish this job, then I would solve the purpose of my life.

Khan did indeed overcome the obstacles--with plenty of help from his friends around the world. And he had learned his lesson well. When he was finished helping Pakistan build its bomb, he turned his talents to another kind of globalization--marketing his wares, and those of his associates from Europe, Asia and South Africa, to a new set of clients.

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