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The Rediff Interview/Benazir Bhutto

March 08, 2004

Early this year, Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan, Pakistan's one-time national hero, was exposed as having been involved in the sale of nuclear technology to so-called rogue regimes, sacked from his job as scientific adviser to Prime Minister Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali, and eventually pardoned by President Pervez Musharraf.

But former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, whose father, the late Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, is acknowledged as the man who first set Pakistan on the nuclear path, refuses to be taken in.

In an exclusive interview with Senior Editor Shyam Bhatia, Bhutto claims that fundamentalist elements colluding with the military regime were actually responsible for trying to export nuclear technology. According to her, Dr Khan is just a scapegoat.

Bhutto, who was prime minister between 1988 and 1990 and again between 1993 and 1996, takes credit for introducing a policy of nuclear restraint that she says was covertly undermined by these jihadi elements.

She also reveals how impoverished Soviet scientists tried to sell enriched uranium to Pakistan in 1990 and how, in the process of rejecting their offer, she may have alerted vested interests in her own country to the existence of an international nuclear black market.

The first of a five-part interview:

Can you tell us how Pakistan started its nuclear programme?

Actually, India started developing its nuclear programme in 1961 or '62, maybe even earlier. My father was a minister in 1962 and he tried to get Pakistan to also start a programme from 1962.

The Indians had not detonated anything, but he negotiated and tried to get material from different countries. He was able to get a peaceful nuclear reactor from Canada that was put under Kanupp [Karachi nuclear power plant] inspection. He was also able to talk to other countries -- I don't wish to go into the names of those countries -- but he talked to other countries from 1962 to help Pakistan develop a nuclear programme.

In four years he left Ayub's [military ruler Field Marshal Ayub Khan] Cabinet. That was in 1966. By the time he came back to office in December 1971, this was not his priority because Pakistan had disintegrated and our priority was to first consolidate residual Pakistan so that it would not break.

In those days there was a lot of talk with Manekshaw [Indian army chief General S H F J Manekshaw, later promoted to Field Marshal] saying he would get another present for the Indian people, and the ANP [Awami National Party of Khan Abdul Wali Khan] was getting support from Afghanistan, which was blessed by the Soviet Union, to spur secessionist movements in the Frontier [North-West Frontier Province] and Baluchistan.

So we had a lot of other priorities, the main one of which was to save Pakistan. Therefore my father didn't concentrate on this nuclear thing. I was then at Harvard, I used to come back for the summer vacations.

In 1974, when the Indians detonated the nuclear device, my father announced at a press conference that Pakistan will develop a bomb "even if we have to eat grass."

When did the scientific work start?

In 1974 my father had already got a group of scientists who had been working on the nuclear reactor and I think it was the plutonium process. This was in the context of the PAEC [Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission] which he established. Actually, it wasn't the PAEC, it was still only Kanupp. He established PAEC and he established Kahuta Laboratories.

So there were laboratories established at Kahuta, which were renamed A Q Khan Laboratories much later. I knew of it as Kahuta laboratories by '77, I don't know what it was before.

The main person around it was Munir Ahmed Khan, who became chairman of PAEC, and my father put together the team of scientists for this and he followed two paths to nuclear status. One was the reprocessing plant and he negotiated an agreement with France for a reprocessing plant and then he did a uranium enrichment plant.

How did A Q Khan get involved?

When he learnt that we were to make the nuclear bomb and eat grass if need be, he approached my father and offered his services. He must have flown in, I don't know how he did it. He said, 'I can assist' and later from press reports it was known that he had been working and he had some blueprints. Right? But he offered. Maybe because he was a patriotic Pakistani who, hearing that the prime minister of Pakistan wanted to make [one], gave his own.

Didn't (then US secretary of state) Henry Kissinger threaten Pakistan in those days if it went ahead with the nuclear programme?

He said, 'We'll make a horrible example of you if you test. Okay?' That was around August 1976. The French did cancel the reprocessing plant agreement, but the uranium enrichment continued.

At that stage there was this Islamic bomb article and they started spreading [rumours] that Libya had funded it. I believe that story was being spread by Zia [Pakistan's military dictator General Zia-ul Haq] and his intelligence because my brothers had set up Al-Zulfiqar and they were launching an armed struggle for the overthrow of Zia's regime. Zia was very scared of them. His plane had been attacked, his key minister Zahor Ilahi had been killed. So he was very scared of what they would do and they were the first people, like the Tamil Tigers, who were prepared to face death but bow down before him.

I was launching a peaceful movement and a democratic movement and I had studied in America and had a lot of influential friends. To discredit us he wanted to say that these people had connections with Libya and that's where the money came from. But it had nothing to do with Libya.

I can say 100 percent it had nothing to do with Libya because, although I cannot say who helped and aided us in our technological advancements, again for reasons of state, I know who did and it was not Libya.

You came back to Pakistan in 1986. Then?

I was under house arrest or Karachi prison, Sukkur prison, Sihala police station, house arrest in different places from 1977 to 1984. I went abroad for medical treatment of my ear, I came back in '86. I was briefly rearrested.

I first came back in 1985 for Shah Nawaz's [Benazir's younger brother Shah Nawaz Bhutto who died in mysterious circumstances in France] funeral. I was arrested, but I was released to go and attend his magisterial investigation.

Then I came back in '86, then I was again arrested, and I became prime minister in '88.

Did you keep in touch with all nuclear events in the intervening years?

No, I didn't. After my father died, I lost all contact. Those people didn't know me. Munir didn't know me, he knew my father. In 1988 when I became prime minister I became aware that A Q Khan and Munir didn't get on... AQ disliked Munir and found it very difficult to work with Munir. He was junior to Munir.

But when I became prime minister there was a bunch of scientists who had come to see me. Of course, when I became prime minister they tried to keep me out of the nuclear loop, even though the most important issue was the nuclear issue and there was a sense of paranoia that our nuclear laboratories could be attacked by Indian planes, or Israeli planes.

Israel had attacked the Iraqi nuclear reactor, so there was a lot of concern that our nuclear programme would be forced to roll back and that they could be destroyed totally. I had to deal with this and when I became prime minister it was one of the first issues I had to deal with.

It was an issue raised by the United States, it was an issue that every Western ambassador raised with me -- fears of nuclear proliferation.

I did not know it then, but now I know that since 1987 Zia had offered to help Iran with a nuclear reactor. This has come in the press, that he had offered this to or decided on a military strategic command.

What is now known is that after defeating the Soviet Union, Zia wanted to defeat America. Everyone in Pakistan used to say, 'Amrika nay ek kutta pala, Zia-ul Haq uska nala.' They used to say this and what people don't realise is that in Pakistan at the mass level Zia was so abused that it was all for the nuclear programme, this was because he was an American dog. They used to call him 'Amrika ka kutta', they never called him by his actual name.

He tried to tell everybody that he was not doing it for America, but for Islam and after defeating the Soviet Union he was going to defeat America and make Islam the greatest power in the world.

So somewhere after 1987, according to press reports, he offered this to Iran...

Part II: 'Pakistan had the bomb by 1989'

Image: Uday Kuckian

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