Real Heroes Live Forever!


Ali Anwar

The laurels heaped on the late Dr AQ Khan after his passing, especially the much-deserved state funeral with full honours, was another reminder of how lucky Pakistan has been to have this brave son of the soil. The marvellous story of how he abandoned a life of luxury in Europe and took the initiative to bring nuclear knowledge and technology to this country is now, quite rightly, the stuff of Pakistani folklore.
Pakistan is among countries with one of the highest percentages of young people living in it. It means that a lot of us weren’t even born in the early 1970s, when Delhi’s decision to “go nuclear,” so to speak, triggered a feverish arms race in the region and raised the stakes for Islamabad. Pakistan was forced to go down the same route without having the provisions for it. This is largely why we were lucky, more than anything else, that Dr Qadeer took it upon himself to bring hope to Pakistan, even at the risk of a severe backlash in western countries; to the point that some over there dubbed him a traitor.
Fast forward two decades and Delhi conducted more nuclear tests in 1998 (when the BJP government was in power under PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee) and made provocative and intimidatory statements like Pakistan would have to bow down to its bigger neighbour. It was only because of the two decades of work put in by Dr Khan and his team, ably backed by the government at every step, that Pakistan was able to reply in kind and conduct tests of its own. It wasn’t just the whole nation that celebrated, despite very harsh sanctions from most western countries, but the entire Ummah welcomed the creation of what much of the international press called the “Islamic bomb.”
The security calculus was forever changed. Despite being a much smaller country with a many times smaller military force than India, Pakistan achieved full deterrence and its defence capability became impregnable. Yet, an even bigger achievement was the fact that unlike India, whose nuclear program was assisted and developed by several western countries that already had the technology, Pakistan’s program was completely autonomous and homegrown. That means the western intelligence agencies always snooping around our instalments had no idea just what methods we had developed to enrich our uranium and make our bomb. Ever since, India, not Pakistan has been militarily and strategically frustrated ever since.
Now, there is no question of any outside force even thinking of challenging our borders. Indians have wanted to do so time and again but are held back, at the end of the day, only because Dr Khan gave us the bomb long ago. The limited skirmishes that have taken place, especially the dogfight after the so-called Balakot incident a couple of years ago, have clearly gone in Pakistan’s favour.
It is also very important to note that going nuclear, though necessary at the time, was still not an easy decision for the Pakistani government in 1998. The US government led by President Bill Clinton threatened to and eventually did, “sanction Pakistan to the eyeballs,” which meant that we were put into a fiscal straightjacket. Yet even though everybody knew just what response our tests would force out of the west, which clearly had no real problems with India’s tests, nobody at any point even mentioned that we should be cautious and heed Washington’s warnings because that would have given Delhi a strategic and tactical edge in the subcontinent’s security calculus.
Also, it is not as if Delhi didn’t pull all sorts of tricks out of its hat to keep Islamabad on the back foot. There were even reports in the evening news the day before Pakistan’s tests that satellite images had spotted Israeli F16 fighter aircraft in India, more to threaten Pakistan than really take to the skies and begin a conventional war. But when the Pakistani leadership defied all the pressure and went ahead with the tests in the Chaghi area of the Balochistan desert, all sorts of threats were automatically diluted and everybody knew that Pakistan had attained maximum deterrence and no country in the world, no matter how strong their military or how many bombs in their armoury, would ever be able to threaten this Islamic Republic ever again.
Images of Dr Qadeer announcing the success of the tests are still fresh in the minds of people that witnessed the news bulletin on that fateful day almost two-and-a-half decades ago. For on that day, we had risen to full strength in our own eyes; and that mattered more to the nation than how anybody on the outside saw us.
Pakistan’s collective heart sank as news reports of Dr Khan’s passing did the rounds just a few days ago. It felt as if we had suddenly lost the protective hand that was always there to nurture and guide us. But has he did his last journey, so proudly wrapped in the national flag and receiving military salutes all the way to the grave, we as a nation finally understood just why they say that real heroes never die; and our hearts filled with gratitude even as tears continued to roll down our cheeks.
Pakistan’s nuclear program, which is the bedrock of the country’s defence capability, is truly unique. It was triggered by the selfless sacrifices of one man, around whom the entire country rallied and who was honoured by one administration after another. We are truly grateful for having Dr Khan around us for so long. And even though we might not get to see him or hear from him again, we know very well, as do all our friends and also our enemies, that he will always live among us; with all Pakistanis and in Pakistan.