Islamabad - When Pakistan commemorates May 28 as Youm-e-Takbeer, it also remembers the unforgettable role of nuclear scientist Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan in building Pakistan’s nuclear programme and its success in the form of country’s nuclear weapons tests in 1998.

Though Dr Khan is not in the limelight for the past more than 15 years and is living a retired life at his home in Islamabad’s upscale area, his name will always shine in history as the father of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb which made country’s defence invincible.

When India made conducted six nuclear tests between May 11 and 13 in 1998, it not only presented Pakistan a security challenge but also offered a rare opportunity to conduct its own tests and become world’s seventh and Muslim world’s first nuclear weapon state.

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The successful tests on May 28 in Chaghi, a north-western district of Balochistan, were an achievement which could be made possible only with the years-long struggle of the national hero, Dr Khan, who spearheaded country’s nuclear programme for more than two and a half decades.

Dr AQ Khan was the man who, according to historians, himself approached then Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto after India carried out its first nuclear tests in 1974 and told him that Pakistan could also run its own nuclear programme.

At that time, he was working for Anglo-Dutch-German nuclear engineering consortium, Urenco, in the Netherlands and had a firsthand experience of the rare shortcut technology of uranium enrichment. He came to Pakistan in December 1974 to meet Bhutto and briefed his team about the technology and asked them to start creating the infrastructure before his return from Holland. Almost a year later he left his job and joined the country’s nuclear programme.

Though Dr Khan is not in the limelight for the past more than 15 years, his name will always shine in country’s history for his incredible services

Prime Minister Bhutto was particularly worried about the country’s defence following the debacle of East Pakistan in 1971. In Pakistan, basic infrastructure to get nuclear capability was non-existent at that time. The Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) was the only institution to work on development of nuclear technology, but it lacked the required expertise. Pakistan felt itself vulnerable when India conducted her first nuclear tests in 1974.

Dr Khan initially worked with PAEC, headed by Munir Ahmad Khan, for a short period. In July 1976, Bhutto gave him full control of the Kahuta Enrichment Project that had been already operative with the name of Project-706 since 1974. When he joined, it was called Engineering Research Laboratories (ERL). However, then military ruler General Ziaul Haq through an order renamed ERL as [Dr AQ] Khan Research Laboratories (KRL) on May 1, 1981.

It took almost three years to Dr Khan to build his own team to undertake a successful nuclear programme. He and his team hired scientists and started purchasing the required material from abroad. As the metallurgist had been living in Europe for 15 years, he knew about their nuclear industry and their suppliers very well. During his job in Holland, he had been extensively travelling in Europe, thus he helped Pakistan in purchasing equipment from there.

“We started developing centrifuges in our Rawalpindi office. It was 6th April 1978 when we achieved our first centrifugal enrichment of uranium,” Dr Khan told Aaj News TV in an interview in August 2009. “But, it was not weapons-grade enrichment rather it was of low grade. However, it was enough to confirm the viability of the project,” he added. He also said that they faced a lot of challenges but successfully managed to achieve 90 percent results in the enrichment programme by the early 1983.

At that time, there were only three countries in the world – United Kingdom, Germany and Netherlands – which could enrich uranium centrifugally. The leaders in uranium enrichment technology i.e. the United States, France, China and Russia were using the diffusion method, instead of enriching it centrifugally. Dr Khan successfully helped Pakistan make it capable of using shortcut centrifugal method of enrichment.

In different interviews in the past, Dr Khan said Pakistan had achieved nuclear capability in 1984 but did not conduct tests for fear of their serious repercussions. As Pakistan was an ally of US in the Afghan war at that time, it and other western countries overlooked Pakistan’s programme and gave further opportunity to Dr Khan to undertake more research at the KRL and further develop the nuclear programme. However, it was left to the then government to conduct nuclear tests at the time of its own choice.

Detention and Release

Following 9/11, the US started mounting pressure on Pakistan, accusing it of giving nuclear weapons technology to North Korea, Iran and Libya. In early 2004, then regime led by military ruler Pervez Musharraf detained Dr Khan in his home and apparently forced him to make a televised confession to nuclear proliferation. He confessed selling nuclear secrets to the three countries. He was immediately pardoned but house arrested. Later during his detention, he retracted his confession and accused Musharraf of making him a scapegoat.

In February 2009, Khan was freed from five years of house arrest on a court order. The court ruled that he was not involved in nuclear proliferation or criminal activity and was a free citizen from now on.

Other Contributions

Under Dr Khan’s supervision, the country also made successful test firing of Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles, Ghauri 1and Ghauri II, in April 1998 and April 1999 respectively.

AQ Khan also played a role in re-organising Pakistan’s national space agency – SUPARCO.

He runs Dr AQ Khan Hospital Trust which, according to the vision statement of the hospital, “provides free comprehensive healthcare, encompassing preventive, curative and rehabilitative health care to the residents of Lahore in particular and the country in general.”

The scientist also remained the project director at the Ghulam Ishaq Khan (GIK) Institute of Engineering Sciences and Technology and helped in setting up materials science department there. Moreover, he helped in establishing Dr AQ Khan Institute of Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering at Karachi University. He also established a polytechnic institute in Mianwali district of Punjab.