ISLAMABAD // The controversies surrounding Abdul Qadeer Khan, the Pakistani scientist who confessed to having run the world's largest nuclear proliferation network, refuse to go away. The latest episode in the saga of the disgraced scientist, hailed in Pakistan as the "father of the atomic bomb", concerns a letter Mr Khan wrote to his family in 2003, details of which were made public in the British Sunday Times newspaper last week.
However, it remained unclear why the letter, which he wrote before he was put under house arrest, was published now and whether it was done at Mr Khan's own prompting. The four-page letter is a scathing indictment of the Pakistani military's top brass, as Mr Khan alleges that generals made money out of proliferation activities and treated Mr Khan as an expendable pawn. The scientist also alleges that Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister assassinated in December 2007, asked him to provide nuclear information to North Korea through a military general.
A "retired Pakistani general took $3 million through me from the North Koreans and asked me to give some drawings and machines", Mr Khan wrote. Mr Khan has publicly refused to comment on the letter and the government has refrained from commenting. Pakistan has long maintained that Mr Khan acted alone in his proliferation activities and did not receive any state support. "We have said consistently that we have real concerns about Mr AQ Khan. We believe that he remains a risk for proliferation," a US state department spokesman said last week.
In the letter, addressed to his wife, Henny, the scientist accuses the Pakistani military of using him as a scapegoat. "They might try to get rid of me to cover up all the things they got done by me," the letter reads. In the letter, he also wrote that the Chinese had warned him that the military would discard him after he completed his nuclear work. A metallurgist by training, Mr Khan confessed to his involvement in nuclear proliferation in an emotional public apology that was televised in February 2004. He was pardoned by Pervez Musharraf, the president, but was immediately placed under house arrest.
Known for relishing media attention, Mr Khan poses a unique dilemma for the Pakistani security establishment. There have been concerns that his public interviews would compromise national security and put the government and military in embarrassing and awkward situation Mr Khan's popularity cuts across a vast swath of public opinion as he is adored by nationalists, right-wing Islamists and opposition political parties that find continued restrictions on his movements a convenient cudgel with which to beat the government. "Love him or hate him, the problem with Khan is that he is a loose cannon and seems bent on trying to settle scores with Musharraf personally or the nuclear establishment generally through the media", wrote columnist Cyril Almeida in Dawn, the country's most prestigious daily, on Friday.
Almeida suggested that a concerted public campaign is needed to put Mr Khan's role in the "correct perspective". "Unmask the 'father of the bomb' and diminish, accurately, his role and he may choose to stay quiet himself. After all, if one thing is certain it is that Khan is a man with a big ego. Hack away at his standing in the domestic public eye, and he may choose to live out his days in quiet retirement. And that way maybe the country can get on with debating the more serious issues," Almeida wrote.
But this may prove easier said than done. An orchestrated public campaign, led first by the Pakistani government in the 1980s and later financed by Mr Khan himself, has cemented his standing in the national psyche as the man solely responsible for making Pakistan a nuclear power. At a time when the country remains gripped by conspiracy theories that the West is bent upon denuclearising Pakistan, any attempts by the government to muzzle Mr Khan would probably prove to be hugely unpopular.