Sunday, January 27, 2013

Munir Ahmad Khan: Real father of Pakistan’s Atomic Bomb

By Saeed Qureshi

Pakistan’s nuclear program that culminated into the fabrication of an atom weapon was originally conceived  in December 1965, when  IAEA nuclear engineer, Munir Ahmad Khan met with  the-then-Foreign Minister of Pakistan, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in Vienna.  In that meeting Munir A. Khan informed Bhutto about the status of Indian nuclear program that could pose a threat to Pakistan’s security.

Later Bhutto arranged a meeting of Munir Khan with President Ayub Khan in London. Munir Khan informed the President that the Indian nuclear program was of a weapon production facility and that Pakistan needed a nuclear deterrent for her security, and survival. President Ayub Khan swiftly brushed off the proposal by remarking that “Pakistan was too poor to spend that much money”.

When Mr. Bhutto assumed power in December 1971, his first and foremost priority was to take up Pakistan’s nuclear program. For this most pressing task, he called a confidential meeting of senior academics, scientists and engineers in Multan on 20 January 1972, known as "Multan Meeting”. In that meeting two most paramount decisions were made. Mr. Bhutto took a pledge from the assembly of 50 scientists to attain the nuclear capability for making an atomic weapon within three years.

The second important decision was to appoint the nuclear engineer, Munir Ahmad Khan, as Chairman of Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC), who, until then, had been working as Director at the Nuclear Power and Reactor Division of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), in Vienna, Austria.

Munir Ahmad Khan remained the Chairman of the PAEC from 1972-1991. During this period much of the initial ground work of crucial research and experimentation through various stages of nuclear technology for making a weapon was covered by him and his associates.

Dr, Qadeer’s induction came much later in 1976 and that divided a unified structure for promoting Pakistan’s atomic program into two rival institutions. A. Q. Khan created the Khan Research Laboratories previously known at as Project-706 and later by Engineering Research Laboratories (ERL) (1976-1983).The PAEC remained under the command of Munir Ahmad Khan who worked tirelessly till he left that prestigious organization.

The rivalry between Munir Ahmad Khan and Dr. Qadeer Khan on one side and the PAEC and KRL on the other had kept the nuclear bomb project at tenterhooks for quite some time. Dr. A. Q. Khan was an exponent of Uranium based program while his counterpart scientists in PAEC were in favor the plutonium based technology to craft a nuclear bomb.

The fear that Munir Khan had conveyed to Mr. Bhutto and president Ayub Khan in 1965, about India’s nuclear potential, became a frightening reality in 1974, when India conducted a surprise nuclear test, code-named “Smiling Buddha”. India clandestinely worked on this project in the aftermath of the surrender of Pakistani troops in Dacca and cessation of the Eastern wing of Pakistan in 1971. India later conducted on May 11 and 13 1998, five more nuclear tests under the code name “Operation Shakti”.

The first Indian detonation of Atomic device was an added blow to the defense capability of Pakistan that had still not recovered from the stunning trauma of East Pakistan debacle at the hands of an inveterate foe. The situation against Pakistan further aggravated with the 1998 Indian atomic tests.

Finally, on 28 May 1998, a few weeks after India's second nuclear test (Operation Shakti), Pakistan detonated five nuclear devices in the Ras Koh Hills in the Chagai district, Balochistan known as Chagai-I and Chagai-II. The Chagai-1 was detonated by KRL (Kahuta Research Laboratories and the Chagai-II was carried out by the PAEC.

Let us now make a comparison between the roles of both Munir Ahmad Khan and Dr. A. Q. Khan in order to determine who deserves to be called the father of the Pakistan’s atom bomb.

Dr. A. Q Khan joined the atomic bomb project in 1976, and became part of the enrichment division at PAEC and continued to push his ideas for uranium based technology even though it had been a secondary and low priority. When Bashiruddin Mahmood was appointed as the director of the PAEC, Qadeer Khan refused to work under him. That was a clear demonstration of vanity and insubordination.

 But Mr. Bhutto came to his help and appointed him as head of the program. In 1983, Abdul Qadeer Khan's appointment as director of ERL was personally approved by President Zia-ul-Haq and he renamed the ERL as KRL after his name as a matter of self- glorification. In 1984, the KRL claimed to carry out its own nuclear cold test of a weapon, but this was unsuccessful as PAEC under Munir Khan had already carried out the test in 1983, codenamed: Kirana-I.

 Following the Indian second test, there was inexorable pressure on Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to come up with a matching response. In several meetings with the Prime Minister, Dr. Qadeer Khan tried to persuade him to allow carrying out of these tests at Kahuta because he wanted to pocket the entire credit for his KRL. The prime minister did not agree to his proposal.

However, with the intervention of the-then COAS, General Jahangir Karamt, prime minister agreed to include Dr. Khan into the team that was assigned to conduct the atomic tests in Baluchistan. Interestingly the rivalry between KRL headed by A. Q. Khan and PAEC culminated into two separate tests. The first known as Chagai-1 was performed by KRL and the second remembered as Chagai-II, by PAEC under the command of Dr. Samar Mubarikmand. Many of Qadeer Khan's colleagues were irritated that he seemed to enjoy taking full credit for a feat; he had been only a part of it.

Dr. Khan was also in the habit of taking up such projects which were theoretically interesting but practically unfeasible. As such he wanted Pakistan to work only on Uranium weapon as compared to that of Plutonium. It was more because of his personal grudge with Munir Khan because of Munir Khan’s expertise in the plutonium route. Despite his opposition, the “Plutonium option and all the related activities to establish infrastructure for making a bomb continued unabated”.

By the time A. Q. Khan joined the atomic energy portfolio in 1976, “Munir Ahmad Khan had already completed the site selection for the Kahuta enrichment plant, initial procurement of vital equipment, construction of its civil works, and recruitment of staff for it. The Kahuta Enrichment Project was called Project-706 launched by the PAEC.  Like the plutonium programme, it was under the overall control and supervision of Chairman Munir Ahmad Khan”. He was accompanied in these activities among others, by a brilliant PAEC physicist-turned diplomat, S.A. Butt.

While As Qadeer Khan and his team stumbled on many occasions in harnessing the centrifuge technology, it was due to vital technical support from PINSTECH and PAEC infrastructure and scientists that he managed to move forward. A.Q. Khan's uranium enrichment known as Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) was not independent of PAEC, even after his acquiring complete control and autonomy for KRL. Of the 24 stages that were inevitable in making a bomb, Dr. Khan could complete only one. The remaining 23 were completed by the PAEC team of nuclear scientists.

The so called “Wah Group” assembled and chosen by Munir Ahmad Khan did a marvellous job under his express watch and guidance. Bbetween 1983 and 1990, besides achieving other crucial bench marks, this group “developed an air-deliverable bomb and conducted more than 24 cold tests of nuclear devices with the help of mobile diagnostic equipment”.

Unquestionably Munir Ahmad Khan worked tirelessly in creating an infrastructure for producing nuclear fuel for Pakistan's nuclear plants. Yet that would was later imbibed, utilized and projected  by A. Q. Khan for his claim as the father of the Pakistan’s nuclear device and program. But by taking advantage of the foundational work done by Munir Khan and his illustrious companions, Dr. Khan can claim to be a runner-up but not the front runner in equipping Pakistan with a nuclear deterrent. 

By the time these monumental tests were conducted, Dr. Khan was left alone in the field to lay claim of being the originator of these lustrous achievements. However the fact is that the spadework for these accomplishments had already been completed by Munir Khan and his colleague scientists. But unfortunately Munir Khan’ remained an unsung hero and his stupendous contribution in leading Pakistan towards the nuclear power status remained obscure and eclipsed.

There was an element of strict secrecy that Munir Ahmad Khan and his colleagues maintained with regard to the nuclear research and development they were engaged in. They would shun publicity and avoid media glare. On the contrary, Dr. Khan was a past master in publicizing his role although it was insignificant in comparison to that of PAEC team. He is alleged to be in the habit of distributing checks to the journalists for highlighting and adulating his contributions and even writing articles and books on him.

Nawaz Sharif despite immense pressure from the United States and other world powers did not budge and went ahead in achieving that historic breakthrough of making Pakistan also a nuclear power in comparison to India.  Dr. A. Q. Khan, at best, can be a foster father. The real father of Pakistan’s atomic bomb, who deserves this meritorious title, is indeed Munir Ahmad Khan.

By the year 1991 when Munir Khan retired, the profound groundwork was already in place to undertake the atomic tests. Incidentally, at that time, there was no political will to take a decision on this momentous issue. Dr. A. Q Khan was then ruling the roost of the nuclear regime in Pakistan particularly the KRL. When the nuclear tests were conducted in 1998, Dr. Khan could be the only recipient of the spectacular honor associated with that historic feat.

By sheer default Dr. A. Q. Khan as head of the KRL, was showered with laurels for the nuclear tests conducted by Pakistan. If it is only the tests, the credit should go to the then prime minister of Pakistan Nawaz Sharif. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto is to be credited as the real architect of the Pakistan’s nuclear regime and atom bomb.

Perhaps the most appropriate parable in case of Munir Ahmad Khan would be that a person builds a house with great deal of efforts, input of time and money but then cannot live it for some unavoidable reasons. In the meantime, another person from his family, by a sheer of quirk of circumstances, becomes the occupant of that house.

The countrymen forgot and perhaps most of the people even did not even know as to who built this grand castle and who inherited it. Traditionally, it is only the actors on the front stage that that get most of the acclaim, honor and popularity and not those who remain behind the curtain, although their contribution is equally awesome and important.

No comments:

Post a Comment