AQ Khan: Father of Pakistan's nuclear bomb jumps into politics

AQ Khan, lauded by many Pakistanis for giving the country the bomb, has launched a political movement targeting the youth vote. He has been accused of selling nuclear secrets to North Korea and Iran.

In this February 2009 file photo, disgraced Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan (c.) talks to media outside his home in Islamabad, Pakistan.

The father of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb has launched a political party, which plans to participate in the next presidential election slated for early 2013.

Abdul Qadeer Khan has started a 100-day campaign to tour Pakistan, starting with Kahuta, home to the first nuclear facility in Pakistan, established just outside Islamabad, during the 1970s. 

“The current leadership in Pakistan is corrupt and it needs to change. I will go around the country to appeal to students, professionals, and the civil society to vote for the right people, since the upcoming elections are around the corner. They look up to me so they will listen to me,” Dr. AQ Khan said in a telephone interview.

Though Khan's sentiments echo a popular sentiment in Pakistan, observers say that the launch of his party, the Tehreek-e-Tahaffuz Pakistan or Save Pakistan Movement, highlights a desire for change within Pakistan. 

“Like in the United States, Obama was the face of change; we have these new players, too,” says Ayesha Siddiqa, a columnist for the Dawn newspaper. “Currently, there is a dire need in Pakistan to go through rejuvenation, and people like Dr. AQ Khan, or Imran Khan [the cricketer-turned-politician], fit the bill,” she adds. 

In Pakistan, Khan is considered a national hero for helping transform the country into a nuclear power. 

Khan is accused, however, of providing nuclear research to Libya, Iran, and North Korea. In 2004 he confessed on Pakistani television to selling nuclear secrets. But he later claimed that he was forced to confess by the then president of Pakistan, Gen. Pervez Musharraf. He was put under house arrest for five years following his confession, and while restrictions were relaxed on him after public pressure, he still lives under tight military security.

To the US and nuclear investigators around the world, he is a rogue scientist who has failed to reveal the extent of the dangers posed by the underground network he created.

Political activity 

In Kahuta, posters put up around the city by the local lawyers' bar association read “we welcome the Savior of Pakistan in Kahuta.”

Earlier, his party spokesman, Chaudhry Khurshid Zaman, said in a press conference that “every political party in the country wants Khan to ally with them, but we will provide support to those politicians who are non-corrupt and honest.”

In his speech to the lawyers in Kahuta, Khan reiterated that nuclear proliferation accusations against him were false, but did add that he had told Pakistani authorities that nuclear technology "is mine to give to whomever I want.”

Khan hasn't specifically mentioned any future plans, though he has played on the Pakistani public's desire to clean up current corruption among the political class and bring in new young professionals.

According to Mr. Zaman, the party has attracted more than a million people already, and most of them are young people.

“We have received tremendous response, especially on social media.” he says, adding that they are getting invites for Khan to speak, from all over the country. 

Though dozens of groups have popped up in support of the new party, none have more than 300 "likes." Facebook pages dedicated to Khan, however, have thousands of supporters. Qamar Ladakhi posted praise on one such page about the launch of the new political party, “in this present tense situation [we are in] need of [a] true, honest, virgin new leader, which I think,  [will] have been fulfilled by [the] coming of our national hero in politics.”

But others are not so positive. While some see his entry into politics as military backed, others see it as more of a compromise that he has made with the Pakistani military to keep his mouth shut.

“Every now and then AQ Khan pulls a rabbit out of the hat, as when he named some Army generals he had bribed with North Korean money,” Pervez Hoodbhoy, a Pakistani nuclear physicist and defense analyst, says. The military would rather see him busy with politics, he adds.

However, according Dr. Siddiqa, who has written two books about the Pakistani Army, Khan is part of a narrative of change the Pakistani security establishment is trying to create and take advantage of this moment in Pakistan. 

“I call it neo-feudalism. This is a new formula in Pakistan, introduced by [the security establishment], which is working on legitimizing faces like AQ Khan, Hafiz Saeed [head of a charity organization in Pakistan accused by India to be behind the 2008 Mumbai attacks], and other personalities who have had a negative reputation in the past,” says Siddiqa.

“There has to be ‘institutional support’ behind him,” says Siddiqa, pointing to the fact that the transfer of nuclear technology from Pakistan to North Korea, for example, "was not only for monetary reasons, but also strategic reasons.”

Pakistan's credibility 

Internationally, observers feel that Khan's entry into politics adds to an already long list of serious doubts about Pakistan's credibility and its status as a responsible nuclear state.  

"He should have been treated as a criminal, but he enjoyed luxury even after his house arrest. He regularly writes opinion pieces in the local newspapers and enjoys life as a popular public figure," says Christine Fair, a Pakistan expert at Georgetown University in Washington.

She is skeptical that Khan will create any impact in the Pakistani elections next year. "With Imran Khan, there were similar expectations, and we saw his popularity surge – especially whenever there was a military-civilian row in Pakistan. But even that has died down," she says, indicating that there may be military behind these new players in the Pakistani politics. She says that the military has been unable to create a credible third force as of yet.  "I don't see AQ Khan becoming that prominent," she adds. 

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