How Pakistan Made the Atomic Bomb


Nuclear Abolition NewsBookReview | IDN


KARACHI (IDN) - The title of the first book (Eating Grass: The Making of the Pakistani Bomb) that authoritatively chronicles Pakistan’s nuclear history comes from a famous remark by (former Prime Minister) Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, architect of the country's atomic programme. In an interview with the Manchester Guardian in 1965, he said if India built the bomb, "we will eat grass, even go hungry, but we will get one of our own. We have no other choice."

Brig (retd) Feroz Khan's . . . book (to be published in November 2012) tells the riveting story of the country's quest for a nuclear capability and the challenges it faced to acquire this. It offers a fascinating portrait of the interplay between geostrategic shifts, key political and scientific figures and evolution of strategic beliefs, which shaped Pakistan’s nuclear decisions.

This insider account, from one long associated with the programme, is more than an addition to the literature, which mostly casts the Pakistani bomb in a negative light. It is the most detailed depiction of an arduous journey that reached its destination in the 1980s and 1990s. As the author recently told me, he was motivated to narrate this because of the relentless disinformation campaign directed against Pakistan’s capability. The result is a compelling tale of how it took the country twenty-five years of gruelling effort to build a strategic capability and even longer to transform that into an operational deterrent with an effective delivery system.

"Darkest chapter"

Khan doesn't avoid dealing with what he characterises as the "darkest chapter of the country’s nuclear history" when the A Q Khan proliferation network was uncovered. The chapter devoted to this explains how a man revered by his compatriots turned a procurement network used to advance Pakistan’s nuclear programme into an export enterprise that brought the country infamy from which it is still to recover.

Although the chapter brings new facts to light, they are no more shocking than the network's discovery in 2004. They mainly pertain to how A Q Khan used the prime minister’s office – even after he was removed from his organisation for engaging in suspicious activity by General Pervez Musharraf – to write to the ruler of another country in pursuit of proliferation activities. This agonising episode spurred Pakistan into improving its command and control system and establishing robust personnel reliability mechanisms.

The book's central concern however is not proliferation. It is to explain how and why Pakistan surmounted numerous obstacles to master the nuclear fuel cycle, pursuing both the uranium enrichment and plutonium route, especially after 1974 when the international nonproliferation regime tried to stop – and punish – Pakistan for India's nuclear explosion. The book’s core thesis is that the more the US-led international community pressured, sanctioned and denied Pakistan access to technology, the more this galvanised national resolve and accelerated the programme.

In demystifying this quest Khan explodes several myths popularised by outsiders especially about the programme being 'stolen' from the West or 'enabled' by China. This he says trivialises the indigenous contribution of Pakistan's scientists. Technical help from China was only sought when there was an impasse. He credits the acquisition of nuclear capability not to one person but to the collective determination of hundreds of people in the civil-military establishment, but above all, the scientific community who believed in achieving nuclear self-sufficiency.

National consensus

This pursuit was backed by a rare national consensus. This survived changes of government and domestic turmoil that punctuated Pakistan's political history. Khan also describes the epic rivalry between two key nuclear institutions: the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission and what later became Khan Research Laboratories. While endemic professional jealousy slowed the nuclear endeavour, it also spurred innovation that produced eventual success. Some leaders even encouraged the 'clash of the Khans'- A Q and Munir Ahmed Khan, who headed the PAEC.

In tracking the early history, the author casts Ayub Khan as a cautious leader who kept the programme focused on peaceful pursuits and tried to curb the ambition of the nuclear lobby, led by Bhutto, Agha Shahi, and Aziz Ahmed. The split between these two camps "drove Pakistan’s policy choices". The rise and fall of Ayub and Bhutto and two top scientists, Dr Abdus Salam and Dr Ishrat Usmani determined the country’s nuclear journey.

1971 and the 'never again' paradigm that emerged after defeat and dismemberment proved pivotal in the decision to build the bomb. "Pakistan’s humiliation would lay the foundation for a shift in the once peaceful nature of the nuclear programme," writes Khan. The 1971 debacle and India’s 1974 nuclear test turned a minority viewpoint into consensus on the imperative of acquiring nuclear weapons. The more India’s nuclear activities were internationally tolerated the greater was Pakistan’s sense of discrimination.

What ultimately determined nuclear success was the cadre of scientists and engineers whose talent was tapped in the country's early years and who were motivated by the resolve not to let India’s strategic advances go "unanswered".

While Khan regards Pakistan's nuclear journey unique in many respects – "no other nuclear power acquired a nuclear capability in the face of efforts to derail the programme" – he also points to similarities with the motivation and rationale of other nuclear powers. All sought the 'ultimate weapon' as a response to insecurity and 'balancing’ against foreign military or political threats. He identifies three common themes among nuclear aspirants: national humiliation, international isolation, and national identity. They were recurrent themes in Pakistan’s case, providing the basis for its strategic perceptions.

Pakistan-US relations

The rollercoaster nature of Pakistan-US relations emerges as an important, explanatory factor in the evolution of the country’s nuclear effort. This unedifying engagement- and the mutual disappointments that accompanied it – reinforced Islamabad’s thinking that in confronting security threats Pakistan could only rely on itself. Moreover decades of discriminatory sanctions, embargos and coercive pressure left many Pakistanis with the impression that its capability was also being targeted for its "Muslimness".

An aspect of the programme's early history revealed in the book is how little the military initially had to do with it. The author depicts GHQ as a later convert to the nuclear idea, with 1974 becoming the defining moment. It was Ghulam Ishaq Khan who from the beginning was "by far the greatest silent patron and contributor" to Pakistan's nuclear programme. When the 1993 political crisis culminated in the removal of the prime minister and president, on his last day in office GIK reluctantly handed over all nuclear-related documents to the new chief of army staff General Abdul Waheed Kakar. This, says Khan, marked the first time the army assumed responsibility for the nuclear programme.

Any history summarising decades of nuclear endeavour can be expected to contain gaps in the account. Those actively involved in the project will probably find many. But for this scribe the book fails to acknowledge the role of Pakistani diplomats especially in the crucial years leading up to the nuclear tests in 1998. This was the period of wide-ranging sanctions and unprecedented US pressure to compel Pakistan to change course. The front line role of diplomats like Munir Akram in framing and articulating Pakistan’s nuclear policy as well as shaping its negotiating position in key international forums deserved special mention. The impression left by the book that soldiers, not diplomats, crafted and conducted nuclear diplomacy to fend off international pressure is not accurate. The foreign ministry played an impressive role in this regard.

The book nevertheless offers a tribute to all who silently or stridently ensured the success of the project. But the nuclear story inescapably raises a what-if question on a fundamental issue. If the country's economic progress had received similar priority and been pursued with the same discipline and consensus Pakistan would not be the shambles that it is today. This irony doesn’t escape the author. He frequently reminds the reader that while possession of a nuclear capability provided Pakistan a partial check against external aggression, it did nothing – nor could it – to address the greater risks to its security and stability, from internal turmoil and conflict.

*Dr Maleeha Lodhi is a journalist, special adviser to the Jang Group/Geo, academic and diplomat from Pakistan. She was Pakistan's High Commissioner to the UK and Ambassador to the United States. She has also been a member of the UN Secretary-General's Advisory Board on Disarmament. This book review first appeared in the print edition of Pakistan's News International from Pakistan on August 31, 2012 and is re-published in view of the importance of the book.

**Feroz H Khan, Eating Grass: The Making of the Pakistani Bomb, Stanford University Press, 2012. [IDN-InDepthNews – September 2, 2012]

2012 IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters

Portrait image: Maleeha Lodhi | Credit: The News International