There was no love lost between Munir Ahmad Khan and A.Q. Khan. Munir was chosen by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to ramp up the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission’s work on nuclear weapons. AQ offered his services to Bhutto from Europe, and was tasked with collecting useful plans for manufacturing centrifuges. When AQ arrived in Pakistan, he found it difficult to work under Munir or anybody else. He secured his own laboratory complex, which was eventually named after him, an early indicator of his considerable skills at self-promotion. Munir went about his business of developing and acquiring the know-how, foreign and domestic, of building an indigenous base for producing plutonium and solid-fueled missiles. AQ focused on uranium enrichment and liquid-fueled missiles. After Bhutto’s demise, General Zia ul-Haq played Munir and AQ against each other, initially siding with AQ, and then with Munir.
The particulars of this competition are detailed in Feroz Hassan Khan’s new book, Eating Grass: The Making of the Pakistani Bomb (2012). [Disclosure: One of my books was published by Stanford University Press, the publisher of Eating Grass.] My long review of Feroz’s book can be found in the next issue of Arms Control Today. Here’s a fore-taste having to do with the battle between the PAEC and the Khan Research Laboratories.
No window into this rivalry was more revealing than the choice of which lab would play the lead role in carrying out Pakistan’s 1998 nuclear tests. May 13th, two days after India tested three devices, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif convened a Defence Coordinating Committee meeting, at which A.Q. Khan and the PAEC’s Samar Mubarakmand made their respective cases about which lab would be in charge. Mubarakmand assured the prime minister that his group would need only 10 days to prepare for the tests—a time line that A.Q. Khan would have been very hard-pressed or unable to meet. Then, in Feroz Khan’s account,
as arrangements were being made for the impending test, Fakhar Hashmi of KRL visited the PAEC on May 14 and requested that Samar Mubarakmand give two bombs to KRL for testing. He spoke with such authority as to give the impression that the government had chosen KRL to conduct the test… This created much anxiety within the PAEC and its members, as many felt that the chance to prove their credentials was being stolen. To add insult to injury, A.Q. Khan purportedly wrote a letter to the prime minister in which he ridiculed the PAEC team, calling them “carpenters and blacksmiths” and requesting a “joint team” of PAEC and KRL personnel be formed with A.Q. Khan at its head.
Army Chief of Staff Jehangir Karamat chose the more competent PAEC team to carry out the tests, but after vigorous protests by A.Q. Khan, Jehangir allowed him and a few members of his team to participate:
Samar Mubarakmand told the author that A.Q. Khan wanted to push the button for the test, which created a last-minute disagreement. Major General Zulfikar Ali Khan [then head of the Pakistan military’s cell overseeing nuclear work] was told that this was not acceptable to the PAEC team that had done the hard work, so it was decided that the honor of pushing the button should be given to a junior person who had made the largest contribution in designing the trigger mechanism [Muhammad Arshad]… At exactly 3:16, Pakistan Standard Time, Arshad prayed “All Praise be to Allah” as he pushed the button.
Eating Grass is likely to figure prominently in a settling of nuclear accounts within Pakistan that is already under way. A.Q. Khan was awarded his nation’s highest civilian honor, the Nishan–e-Imtiaz, not once, but twice, in 1996 and 1999, prior to his 2004 public “confession” of misdeeds extracted by President Pervez Musharraf. AQ subsequently retracted that confession.
Munir suffered many indignities because AQ regularly proclaimed his competitor’s failings. Munir went publicly unrecognized until he received the Nishan–e-Imtiaz posthumously in 2012, thirteen long years after his death. Now these tables have turned. As AQ futilely throws his hat into the ring of Pakistani politics, his standing as the father of Pakistan’s bomb is plummeting. Feroz’s account paints AQ as a vain, underperforming showman who caused “irreparable loss” to Pakistan’s international standing, while Munir, a quiet man with a thin smile, methodically laid the foundations of Pakistan’s future deterrent.