The man known as the father of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program, Abdul Qadeer Kahn, is a national hero in Pakistan — and a villain in much of the West.
Now, the controversial scientist is trying his hand at politics at the age of 76.
In the U.S., Khan is best known for selling nuclear technology to nations such as North Korea and Iran. In 2004, at the urging of the U.S., Pakistan placed Khan under house arrest. But in 2009, he was freed.
Khurshid Zaman, Khan’s chief campaign adviser, says Khan wants to end what he sees as Pakistan’s downward spiral and target young voters. Khan calls his movement Tehreek Tahafuz Pakistan, which loosely translates as “Save Pakistan.”
“Dr. A.Q. Khan … believes that Pakistan should have a bright future,” Zaman says.
Pakistan’s government says Khan is not allowed to meet with foreigners, and he declined a recorded interview with NPR. Zaman says Khan started his political movement because terrorism, corruption and a dysfunctional political system are fueling turmoil in Pakistan.
“He was very clear on one thing: that if we sit and don’t do anything this will be a historic crime for coming generation,” Zaman says. “He feels that our future generations will suffer if we don’t stand and work now.”
Zaman says Khan has already received broad support from all corners of Pakistani society and that Khan will play only a guiding role in the political movement he’s started. Pervez Hoodboy, a nuclear scientist and civil activist, says he is not convinced.
“A.Q. Khan has long wanted to be in politics but he missed the bus 10 years ago,” Hoodboy says. “He wants to be president of Pakistan, and yet now people suspect the various statements that he makes, that he’s not all there.”
A Loose Cannon?
Some of Khan’s recent statements have been extreme. In one of his first political speeches, Khan called former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf a traitor for dealing with the U.S. He said Musharraf may be executed and his body dragged through the streets.
Khan has also tried to deflect blame for transferring nuclear secrets to Iran and North Korea, saying he was just following orders from former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Professor Hoodboy says Khan is rewriting history like a growing number of others, and he disputes Khan’s mantel as father of the nuclear bomb.
“He actually got some centrifuge technology while he was working in Holland brought it back, reversed engineered it,” Hoodboy says. “But it’s actually the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission which made the bomb for Pakistan, and he played only a supportive role.”
Hoodboy says Pakistan’s establishment fears Khan coming to power because he’s increasingly seen as a loose cannon. Hoodboy concedes there’s a chance Khan could become a member of Pakistan’s parliament, which may worry some in the U.S.
Khan’s adviser, Zaman, says America needs a fresh start in this region.
“America unfortunately doesn’t enjoy a very good name in Pakistan society and the region,” Zamar says. “But we want to work with them and have friendly relationships with America. We do want to work for peace as well as with America.”
Elections in Pakistan must be called by next March but it’s possible they could be held before the end of the year.