In the summer of 2000, over a candle light dinner in Kyrenia, the beautiful coastal town in northern Cyprus, we remembered a dear friend who had passed away almost a year after Pakistan conducted its May 1998 nuclear tests. At the dinner, I had the privilege of the company of Akbar Eitemad, the former head of the Iranian Atomic Energy Agency, and Cyrus Manzoor, a former Secretary of the Agency who was as well my academic colleague in Cyprus.
More than anything else, what brought the three of us together at the dinner table was one person, Munir Ahmad Khan, who spearheaded Pakistan’s nuclear programme for two decades, as Chairman of the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) from 1972 to1991.
The history of the Iranian nuclear programme, which is in the limelight today, transcends the Iranian Revolution. It was Eitemad who pioneered the Iranian nuclear programme, which had a peaceful dimension since Iran was a signatory to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Eitemad was the counterpart of Munir, and Cyrus’s counterpart at PAEC was Dr Ishfaq Ahmad, the former PAEC chief, currently serving as advisor to the Prime Minister.
I can take the credit of uniting old friends. They had not communicated with each other since the Iranian revolution, as both Eitemad and Cyrus had left Tehran before the revolution. While Eitemad chose Paris as his new abode, Cyrus migrated to Cyprus after living in Paris for a number of years.
Each summer, Eitemad would travel to Cyprus for vacations, and then we would get together to revive our memories of the great man that Munir Ahmad Khan was. Unfortunately, Cyrus also passed away a month after we had that last dinner together. Both Eitemad and Cyprus always appreciated the contributions and tribulations of Munir Ahmad Khan for our nuclear programme, which in the 70’s was only at a budding stage.
April 22, 2006 marks the seventh death anniversary of Munir Ahmad Khan. Munir was one of the first Asian scientists to join the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the world’s premier nuclear body. Munir Ahmad Khan rose to become director of IAEA’s Reactor Engineering Division and Member of the Board of Governors, and was elected IAEA Board Chairman in 1986-87. After retiring from PAEC in 1991, he kept in touch with the IAEA. He died on April 22, 1999, while being on the Advisory Board of the Islamic Development Bank.
Each year since his death, a reference is held in Islamabad to mark his death anniversary, where leading members of ‘Munir’s team’ at PAEC—including Dr Samar Mubarkmand, Chairman of the National Engineering and Scientific Commission (Nescom), Dr Ishfaq Ahmed, Dr N.M. Butt, who chairs Pakistan Science Foundation, Sultan Bashir-u-Din Mahmud, former DG Nuclear Power at PAEC, and, last but not the least, Farhatullah Babar, who held the PAEC’s Public Relations portfolio and is presently PPP’s spokesman—usually pay tributes to the lost soul.
This time, however, for some reason, the reference is not being this time—a reason enough for me to pen down some personal thoughts about this great scientist of our age.
I knew Munir Ahmad Khan initially as a news reporter covering diplomatic affairs and then as an academic working on nuclear matters. When the CTBT issue was hot in the mid of 90’s, involving a lot of ill-informed politicking regarding a complex nuclear matter, I remember Munir Ahmad Khan suggesting to co-author a work explaining basic nuclear terminologies to local audience. Somehow, with me busy in doctoral research and Munir Ahmad Khan engaged at IAEA, the book project could not materialize.
Then came the Indian nuclear tests of May 1998, and, somehow, Munir Ahmad Khan and I had another occasion to get together at the Ministry of Information’s Media Coordination Committee meetings, which were held daily for 17 days after India’s nuclear testing to chalk out the modalities of Pakistan’s nuclear response. I was then a foreign affairs consultant at the Ministry. And I am a witness to the honest resolve that Munir Ahmad Khan showed during the Committee proceedings.
Munir Ahmad Khan was in Geneva for a medical check-up when India committed the “original sin.” Munir Ahmad Khan flew back home immediately. He was quite ill. Just days prior to his departure to Geneva, we had met in Islamabad, and, as usual, Munir Ahmad Khan talked about “nuclear restraint.” However, back home from Geneva, a cautious nuclear scientist had turned hawkish.
In an interview with me on PTV, Munir Ahmad Khan warned the Hindu nationalist leadership of India not to engage in any adventurism—as soon after testing, BJP President L K Advani had started talking about a “qualitative change in South Asia’s strategic environment,” necessitating Pakistan’s submission to India’s hegemony in the region. For Munir Ahmad Khan, the situation had also experienced a “qualitative change,” but one requiring nothing but a “response in kind.”
Munir Ahmad Khan did his B. Sc. from Government College Lahore as a contemporary of the late Nobel Laureate Dr Abdus Salam. He later went to the United States, where he earned a Master’s in electrical engineering from North Carolina State University and an M. Sc. in nuclear engineering from Argonne National Laboratories in Illinois as part of the Atoms for Peace Programme.
While Munir Ahmad Khan was with the IAEA, Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto requested him to return to Pakistan as PAEC Chairman at the famous Multan Conference of senior scientists, where the foundations of the nuclear weapons programme were laid. It was a historic move—a fore-runner to India’s so called Peaceful Nuclear Explosion of July 1974—as Pakistan thereafter embarked on a crash program to develop the atomic bomb. Munir, as the architect of the nuclear programme, would make this dream come true by 1983 when PAEC conducted its first successful cold tests.
Under his leadership, Pakistan’s nuclear programme developed into a multi-faceted and dynamic center of science and technology, both on the peaceful and deterrence sides. Munir Ahmad Khan established the blueprint and developed the know-how for Pakistan’s weapons capability. This includes the fuel and heavy water fabrication facilities, uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing facilities, nuclear fuel cycle facilities, training centres and nuclear power reactors.
It was also under his stewardship that PAEC developed new strains of rice and cotton that added billions to Pakistan’s agricultural output. Nuclear medical centres across the country have treated hundreds of thousands of cancer patients. Some years ago, a long-standing dream of his was achieved with the elevation of the Centre for Nuclear Studies (CNS) into an internationally recognized university. He established CNS as a centre of excellence, to provide the critical element of any nuclear programme, the trained manpower, which has so far produced well over 2,000 nuclear scientists and engineers.
It was Munir Ahmad Khan who initiated the Kahuta Enrichment Project, as Project-706, under Bashiruddin Mahmud, in 1974. He completed the feasibility study, site selection for the plant, construction of its civil works, recruitment of the staff, and procurement of the necessary materials by 1976. PAEC under Munir remained in charge of the overall bomb programme, of all the 23 out of 24 difficult steps before and after uranium enrichment, and he continued to provide technical support to the enrichment program all along.
PAEC under him went on to develop the first generation of nuclear weapons in the 1980s. Munir started work on the bomb itself in a meeting called in March 1974, in which the secret ‘Wah Group’ was assigned the task of initiating work on it. The Chaghi tunnels were constructed under him and were ready by 1980. Munir successfully conducted the first ‘cold’ tests in March 1983, and the 1998 ‘hot’ tests were their confirmation. Perhaps his greatest contribution is enabling Pakistan to acquire complete mastery over the nuclear fuel cycle, which is critical to the development and success of any nuclear programme.
When in 1976 Canada suspended the supply of heavy water fuel and spare parts for the Karachi nuclear power plant, he took up the challenge and using indigenous resources produced the Feed for KANUPP, which is why the Muslim world’s first nuclear power plant is still running successfully. He also upgraded the research reactor at PINSTECH and laid the groundwork in the 1980s for the 300 MW nuclear power plant at Chashma.
PAEC under Munir was also actively developing the plutonium programme, in spite of the cancellation of the French reprocessing contract, and went ahead with developing an indigenous pilot reprocessing plant, which was completed by 1981, known as the ‘New Labs’ in PINSTECH. PAEC did not forego the plutonium route, and was successful at developing the indigenous plutonium production reactor at Khushab. This was driven during Munir Khan’s 19-year tenure at PAEC.
I can go on and on insofar as this narration of Munir Ahmad Khan’s personal contributions to Pakistan’s nuclear programme are concerned. But let me conclude by pointing out the real greatness of this man: for all that he did, Munir never took any personal credit. His fundamental belief was that the success of a nuclear programme depends on the hard labour of hundreds of nuclear scientists and engineers, and it is they who deserve the real credit.
Nuclear programmes, he believed, must be undertaken secretly—just as the Indians and the Israelis and the Chinese or, for that matter, all of the five recognized nuclear powers had done. For him, playing politics over a nuclear programme, or taking personal credit for it, was against national interests. May God bless this great soul!