Shopping for bombs
[ bookreviews ]
Shopping for Bombs is the story of the network operated by Pakistani scientist AQ Khan, which started off developing the Islamic world’s first atomic bomb, then went on to sell the technology to anyone who could pay for it. The network had dealings with a number of aspiring nuclear powers, including Libya, Iran and North Korea, and has been described as the world’s leading black market dealer in nuclear technology.
At the heart of this twisted tale of treachery, smuggling and deceit lies a very simple piece of politics. The US knew all about the Pakistani bomb program in the 80s, but did not try to shut it down in spite of the obvious concerns. This was because Pakistan’s ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence Agency) was a key link in supporting the resistance against the Soviets in Afghanistan. The ISI channelled money and arms to the Mujahideen, and any attempts by US agencies to move against the Pakistan nuclear program was promptly vetoed. As it happens, after their success in helping drive out the Russians, the ISI went on to support the resistance group which eventually took over after the Soviets left - the Taliban. The theory that "my enemy’s enemy is my friend" has rarely looked so implausible.
Khan is widely hailed as the father of the Pakistani bomb, a position which gives him tremendous status. Pakistan, described as being a land without heroes, finally had someone of global stature. This made criticising Khan, or accusing him of wrongdoing, a dangerous act; it would be a brave prosecutor who tried to move against him. Khan was very aware of his position, and charges of treason, unpatriotic behaviour and bringing Pakistan into disrepute would rain down on the heads of anyone who looked like becoming a threat. (It was always Khan’s entourage who sprung to his defence, as the great man himself would never stoop so low). It seems that even the President did not dare stand up to him. However, it is unclear how much of Khan's operation had the approval, tacit or otherwise, of Pakistani government officials. It is equally unclear exactly who received a cut of the proceeds of the nuclear deals.
However, as the book recounts, it seems it was the rival Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) team who actually built the Pakistani bomb, and not Khan’s own group. But Khan seems to have been a master of self-publicity and wrote his own version of events. The book paints him as a bombastic, not to say arrogant, individual with a desire above all for his own greatness to be recognised, while cynically selling nuclear technology for his own personal gain. But he is nevertheless a committed patriot and devout Muslim, and perhaps a more sympathetic author might have protrayed him quite differently.
The Khan network offered a complete menu of nuclear technology. They could sell you centrifuges to enrich uranium, or the technology to build centrifuges, or even the tools to build the machines to make centrifuges. Given that machines to construct centrifuge blades are themselves quite innocuous, this would seem to make counter-proliferation an impossible task, but Western intelligence agencies seem to have been following most of Khan's moves. It was politics that prevented them from acting against him. The book gives a detailed account of the network's activities, some of which may not have been terribly sinister. The author asserts that Khan's repeated visits to Timbuktu indicate some sort of shady dealings, probably connected with nuclear arms sales. Well, perhaps; but the fact that he owned a hotel there which he named after his wife suggests that these visits were not very clandestine. It is quite likely that Khan was simply enjoying the fruits of his position, including the opportunity to jet off to exotic locations with his whole entourage.
It was the Libyan deal that finally brought down the Khan network. When Colonel Gadaffi decided to come in from the cold, he agreed to shut down his nuclear program and hand over the documentation. This included a mass of paperwork, including designs and blueprints from the Pakistanis; some of these were still in a carrier bag supplied by Khan’s favourite tailor. Given hard evidence and worldwide media exposure of his illegal trading in nuclear secrets, the Pakistani government was finally able to tackle Khan. Not to the point of actually putting him on trial, as his potential to embarrass those in power was (and is) too great... but he now lives under indefinite house arrest.
While the book goes into exhaustive detail of the Khan network's dealings with Iran, Libya and North Korea, it lacks a sense of greater perspective. There is little discussion of the implications of nuclear proliferation, and no examination of what happened when nations like India and Israel acquired their own bomb. What would have happened it Pakistan had no reply to India’s nuclear program? Would an Iranian bomb automatically be a bad thing, or would it increase regional stability by reducing the chance of a war? Are nuclear weapons a good thing in Russian or French hands, but bad when held by other countries?
The lesson of the book seems to be that acquiring the technology to build nuclear weapons is not difficult for a state with even modest resources. But getting a working bomb is very much easier if you happen to be a friend of the United States, or at least an enemy of their current enemy.