x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

The story of Pakistan's improbable pursuit of nuclear weapons

Feroz Khan's new book promises to unravel the secrets of Pakistan's nuclear programme. But what drove this impossible project in the first place? The answer lies somewhere deep inside Islamabad's political machine.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the former Pakistani foreign minister, speaks to supporters at the Mazar of the Qaid-I-Azah in Karachi in 1969.
Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the former Pakistani foreign minister, speaks to supporters at the Mazar of the Qaid-I-Azah in Karachi in 1969.

Eating Grass
Feroz Khan
Stanford University Press
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In 1953, the American journalist Norman Cousins travelled to Karachi to interview Mohammed Ali Bogra, who had been appointed by Ghulam Mohammed, Pakistan's third governor-general, to succeed the country's recently sacked second prime minister. Pakistan was just six years old. Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, had been dead for five of these. But the "countless thousands of refugees" who had uprooted themselves from their ancestral homes in India for Jinnah's Promised Land confronted Cousins everywhere, "struggling just to stay alive".

What progress, Cousins asked Bogra, was Pakistan making in the cause of raising the living standards of its citizens? Bogra acknowledged the "terrific problem", but complained that the dispute with India over Kashmir was compelling his young nation to spend "more than 60 per cent of our national budget [in] maintaining and equipping" its military. "This valuable money," Bogra admitted, "could be utilised for a nation-building programme." But having resolved to protect its "freedom", Pakistan was making this "supreme sacrifice, spending almost three-quarters" of its budget on the military.

Six decades have passed, so much has changed, and yet so little seems different. Bogra's answer was an early expression of the stock tenets that continue to govern the thinking of Pakistan's ruling elite. It's a narrative in which the acquisition of a piece of disputed territory remains the condition for "freedom" at home; the depletion of national budgets to feed the military's expansion the price required to attain it, and the hardships of Pakistan's existing citizenry the "supreme sacrifice" in the service of an incomplete national project.

This explains the paradox of Zulfi Bhutto, who became the country's ninth prime minister in 1973, campaigning to provide "food, clothing and shelter" for every Pakistani, while lobbying privately for the production of nuclear weapons, even if it meant condemning every Pakistani to "eating grass".

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Feroz Khan borrows Bhutto's phrase as the title of his ambitious history of Pakistan's nuclear programme. Eating Grass: The Making of the Pakistani Bomb is not only the first serious account to emerge from within Pakistan of the so-called "Islamic bomb" - it is also an insider's story of an improbable quest.

A retired brigadier from the Pakistani army, Khan was able to interview the closed group of scientists, politicians, diplomats and generals involved in the clandestine effort to confer nuclear prestige on Pakistan. Yet what emerges on the page is a highly defensive account.

Ever since the exposure of the AQ Khan network, which revealed that the father of Pakistan's nuclear bomb had been selling the country's nuclear secrets on the international black market, Pakistan's nuclear programme has been subjected to relentless scrutiny. Khan arrives at his task not simply as the teller of a story; he must also tackle misconceptions and set the record straight. Despite his best attempts, Khan fails to do this. Often, he challenges evidence-based claims with opinions rooted in raw emotion.

Khan begins by drawing brisk portraits of the formidable trio of Cambridge-educated physicists - Rafi Muhammad Chaudhry, Abdus Salam, Nazir Ahmed - who laid the foundations of Pakistan's "nuclear endeavours" in the nation's first years. All three were idealists who believed in the right of poorer nations to pursue progress through science, and one of them, Abdus Salam, went on to win the Nobel Prize. Khan depicts Pakistan's eventual shift in favour of nuclear weapons as a product, among other things, of its disillusionment with the security assurances of America, which remained neutral in Pakistan's disputes with India, the defeat at the hands of India, and the establishment of Bangladesh. Rarely does he question Pakistan's own conduct in any of these matters.

Pakistan was a country teetering towards extinction right after its birth. It had no significant industry. It produced jute and cotton, but the processing mills lay in India. Partition had resulted in a massive flight of capital. What saved Pakistan's immediate collapse was its proximity to the Soviet Union. Fabricated reports of Soviet plans to invade Pakistan were prepared and distributed by Pakistani officials in London and Washington. The US President Dwight Eisenhower was willing to offer aid, but he was not prepared to commit America to a security pact against India, nor was he willing to make Washington party to the Kashmir dispute. At this stage, Pakistan had few choices. It accepted Washington's terms. Aid began flowing. The US equipped Pakistan's military. By 1957, US assistance to Pakistan had reached $500 million.

By 1958, seven prime ministers had ruled Pakistan. In October that year, Iskander Mirza, Pakistan's first president, scrapped the constitution and declared martial law. A month later, Ayub Khan launched the country's first military coup.

Ayub's ascension offered some hope. As a military man, he seemed capable of pulling Pakistan out of the chaos that its civilian leaders had plunged it into. He was disciplined, appeared certain about his plans for Pakistan and, most crucially, possessed the power to implement them. And yet the outward appearance - the sharply cut suits, the finely clipped moustache - concealed a schizoid personality. A new constitution was promulgated in 1962. Khan credits Ayub with a "secular outlook". And yet the constitution he promulgated created a greater role for religion - and religious policing - than any of its predecessors. What followed was an intensive programme of indoctrination that invented a whole new past, presenting Pakistan as the very apogee of Islam's evolution. Pakistan's pluralistic heritage was consciously erased in order to create a malleable monolith. Education was the principal target - textbooks were filled with myths; the study of "Islamiyat" was promoted at universities; a whole new discipline called "Pakistan studies", locating the country's origins in the history of Islam, was created; and the army, particularly Ayub, was portrayed as its saviour.

In May 1964, India's long-serving first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru died. Zulfi Bhutto, Ayub's ambitious foreign minister, was sent to New Delhi as Pakistan's representative at his funeral. There he met Lal Bahadur Shastri, the favourite to succeed Nehru. He was not impressed. From almost that moment on, Zulfi pushed his boss to take action in Kashmir. India, he felt, was ready for defeat. Incidents along the border escalated rapidly. A few months later, Shastri himself made a stopover in Karachi on his way back from Ottawa to Delhi to attend an informal summit with Ayub. As the discussions carried on, the mighty dictator, dressed in a suit, considered his democratic counterpart - sandal-wearing, dhoti-clad, diminutive, frail - and concluded that Shastri was a weakling incapable of putting up a fight.

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The Rann of Kutch, a disputed salt marsh sandwiched between Gujarat and Sindh, provided the first breakthrough for Pakistan. India's security presence in the region was skeletal. At about 3am on April 9, 1965, Pakistan launched its attack. Within two weeks, nearly 100 Patton tanks of the Pakistani army were stationed at the front. Indians retreated. Britain offered to mediate. Both parties agreed. In a broadcast to the nation, Ayub declared this as a victory for Pakistan.

Washington had by then become wary of its Islamic ally. In 1963, it had suspended a US$4 million loan after Pakistan entered into an aviation agreement with China. But Pakistan's most serious violation of its terms with the US was the use of American tanks against India. Washington had issued strict instructions that its armour should not be deployed against India. Pakistan saw this as a great betrayal.

The "victory" at Rann produced intense pressure on Ayub to wage a full-scale war against India. One analyst urged Pakistan to "go for a knockout". Ayub huddled with his advisers. Their advice was unanimous: attack. Two operations would be mounted to sever Kashmir from India. Operation Gibraltar would involve training mujahideen to infiltrate Kashmir and provoke an uprising against "Hindu rule". Once the Kashmiris had risen up, Pakistani troops would advance in overwhelming numbers and wrest the region from India: Operation Grand Slam. Kashmiris did not rise up, but dozens of Indian tanks, supported by infantry, crossed the border into Pakistan and headed in the direction of Lahore. Pakistan had made a disastrous gamble, yielding only death and destruction, and culminating in a military stalemate. But Khan's emphasis is on the "rebuff" Pakistani appeals to Washington generated.

Zulfi Bhutto, the "father" of the Pakistani nuclear programme, whose advice had landed Pakistan in this crisis, saw American "designs" against Pakistan and claimed that Washington would stop at nothing short of "liquidating" Pakistan's national leadership. This was absurd, but it made him popular. Ayub was now convinced that Bhutto was a "madman", but he was now more or less irrelevant. It was Zulfi's words which resonated with the masses now. He was determined to capitalise on the fears and suspicions that the people of Pakistan had been fed for two decades. In three years, Zulfi emerged as West Pakistan's most popular politician.

By the end of the 1960s, Pakistan had witnessed one major political assassination, two constitutions, two wars, seven prime ministers, one military coup, and two martial law administrators. It had not witnessed a single general election. Bhutto pushed aggressively for the development of nuclear weapons during these years, but there was no real appetite within the establishment to enter a nuclear race. But what happened next, according to Khan, cemented Pakistan's determination to get the bomb. In December 1971, the Pakistan that was founded in 1947 ceased to exist when its eastern wing declared independence and became Bangladesh.

This was accomplished with India's help.

This is the most extraordinary chapter in Khan's book because, in making the case for Pakistan's lurch in the direction of nuclear weapons, Khan equates West Pakistan's experience to the "memory of the holocaust among the Jewish people" as the motivation for getting the bomb.

What is often forgotten is that a majority of Pakistanis until the country's demise in 1971 lived in its eastern wing.

Yet, for a quarter of a century, East Pakistan had been exploited and neglected, its resources shipped out to fuel the western wing's needs, revenues from its jute and tea exports lavishly spent on imports for the Punjabi-dominated West, and its people marginalised. In spite of their numerical strength, Bengalis occupied less than 20 per cent of the country's civil service posts and made up no more than 10 per cent of the country's army. For over two decades, West Pakistan attempted to erase Bengali culture. Denouncing Bengali as a "Hindu" language, West Pakistanis subordinated it to Urdu. When East Pakistan erupted with indignation, it was accused of turning its back on Pakistan.

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When Mujibur Rahman's Awami League swept the first general elections held in Pakistan's history, he was not invited to form the government. The election that should have produced the first people's government of Pakistan led instead to its dismemberment. Created expressly to safeguard the Muslims of India, Pakistan disintegrated the following year - after committing the single-biggest massacre of Muslims since the birth of Islam.

On the night of March 25, 1971, tanks rolled into the campus of Dhaka University, opening fire on the sleeping students of the Jagannath and Iqbal halls. Sitting behind his bedroom window in the flat opposite the halls, Professor Nurul Ullah of the university's engineering department captured the slaughter on camera. His shaky black-and-white footage paralyses the viewer.

Tiny figures carrying corpses emerge from the halls. These are the students, dressed in light clothes, neatly piling up the dead bodies of their classmates and professors. The students then line up in a row and the Pakistani army appears. One student drops to his knees and grabs the jackboot of a soldier, begging for mercy. He is shot. The gap between each shot decreases progressively thereafter. The students collapse into a fresh pile. This was the beginning. Tikka Khan declared that he would implement the "Final Solution", promising to kill four million Bengalis in 48 hours. Pakistan's soldiers eventually slaughtered up to three million people over nine bloodcurdling months in 1971 in what is today Bangladesh.  Whose condition resembled the Jewish experience of holocaust?

Khan claims that on the day Bangladesh declared its independence, "Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi stood before the Indian parliament and, amid a thunderous ovation, stated that India had 'avenged several centuries of Hindu humiliation at the hands of Muslim emperors and sultans'." But her official statement before the Indian parliament made no mention of religion at all. It could not have.

None of the men who were leading India's forces at the time were Hindu. India's air marshal was a Muslim (Idris Latif); the commander of its ground forces in Bangladesh was a Sikh (JS Aurora); the chief of the armed forces was a Parsi (Sam Manekshaw); and the strategist who planned the capture of Dhaka was Jewish (JFR Jacob). India in 1971 was still an unimpeachably secular state. So why does Khan attribute this line to Indira Gandhi?

So why does the author attribute this line to Indira Gandhi?

Because projecting India as a Hindu state is essential to Pakistan's sense of itself as the authentic home of the subcontinent's Muslims. And yet, after losing half of its territory and a majority of its citizens, what was Pakistan? And after killing so many Muslims, what moral right did it retain to speak for the Muslims of Kashmir? These are questions that do not occur to Khan, whose own world view was forged in the battlefields of that war.

Zulfi's subsequent pledge to wage a "thousand-year war with India" is based on the idea of an eternal conflict and on the assertion that Muslims and Hindus are two separate nations.

Jinnah had invented the myth of Hindu-Muslim enmity and offered up Pakistan as the sole answer to it. This myth collapsed in 1971. But in what remained of Pakistan the events of 1971 only provoked a renewed determination to defend that failed idea. Bhutto, even though he did not win an election, became the nation's leader.

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In 1972, Bhutto assembled Pakistan's top scientists and demanded a bomb in three years. He then flew to Tripoli, Libya, and persuaded Col Muammar Qaddafi to fund the programme. Qaddafi agreed, poured in between $100m and $500m, and facilitated the transfer of piles of "yellow cake" to Pakistan. "Our resources are your resources," Qaddafi declared in 1974 to a Pakistani crowd gathered in an imposing sports stadium in Lahore that still bears the name of Libya's deposed leader. In the same year, after India tested its own device, Bhutto authorised AQ Khan, a young Pakistani metallurgist working on nuclear plants in the Netherlands, to steal sensitive information. The memory of Muslim dispossession during Partition haunted AQ Khan. He offered his services to Pakistan after witnessing the surrender of Pakistani troops to Indian forces in Dhaka on television in Belgium.

Eating Grass underplays AQ Khan's contribution to Pakistan's bomb. But could Pakistan have got the bomb without his effort?

AQ Khan exploited his extensive network to source highly sensitive materials that went into creating a centrifuge cascade in Kahuta. It was here that uranium was enriched to produce the fissile material for the bomb. Because AQ Khan is now a national embarrassment, Eating Grass projects other scientists, notably Munir Ahmed Khan, as the real heroes of the nuclear programme. As head of the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission, Munir focused on solid fuel missiles and plutonium reprocessing.

His contribution was significant, but he exists in the book mainly to serve as the counterbalance to AQ Khan: "Munir was a sober, quiet and unassuming person dedicated to his work. AQ Khan was a glib-tongued flamboyant individual always in search of publicity and glory," one official recalls.

Eating Grass, however, doesn't answer the fundamental question of how AQ Khan could so openly sell Pakistan's nuclear secrets to Libya, North Korea and Iran. The author states simply that his colleagues were "shocked to discover the extent and range" of AQ Khan's network. Nor does Khan, who oversaw the creation of control structures as Pakistan operationalised its programme, address adequately the question of the arsenal's vulnerability to terrorist attacks.

A number of Pakistan's nuclear sites are located in areas that have a substantial Taliban presence, and between 2007 and 2008, its fighters launched spectacular attacks on installations in Wah, Sargodha and Kamra. The rapidity with which Pakistan is multiplying its arsenal (it has more warheads than India) and the fact that it still retains the option of reprocessing plutonium makes its difficult to have confidence in Khan's claim that Pakistan "has shown maturity in its policies".

Pakistan has refused to agree to a "no first use" policy with India. This means that even if Pakistan doesn't launch a preemptive strike on India, it can continue, thanks to the deterrent it possesses, to do as it pleases without having to worry about a counterattack. Traditional models of deterrence stability do not apply to Pakistan because it remains a state fractured between competing interests. In 1999, for instance, as the civilian governments of Pakistan and India were signing peace agreements in Lahore, the Pakistan army, led by General Pervez Musharraf, was orchestrating a top-secret military operation to wrest Kashmir that resulted in the costly and wasteful Kargil war. But the only lesson Khan draws from Kargil is that "there was a deep-seated bias against [Pakistan] in the international community…". The immediate domestic consequence of the Kargil crisis was yet another military coup, this time by Musharraf. Khan would later draft the dictator's first address to the nation.

Eating Grass reveals that Pakistan had untested bombs as early as 1990. But it does not answer the most significant charge against Pakistan's nuclear programme. Was the "Pakistani bomb" really the product of Pakistan's scientific ingenuity, or an accomplishment made possible by high-level theft of data and the undetected procurement of material by flouting western export controls? Washington, reliant in the 1980s on Pakistan's support in the fight against the Soviet forces in Afghanistan, overlooked its proliferation activities. The Reagan White House kept Pakistan's programme hidden from Congress. Humiliating the Soviet Union was a bigger concern than nuclear proliferation.

"No other nuclear power," Khan declares in a final burst of nationalist pride, "acquired a nuclear capability under such obstacles and in the face of efforts to derail the programme; no other power without experience and support turned its rudimentary nuclear capability into operational deterrent forces; and no other power created a robust command-and-control system and constructed a nuclear security regime under immense pressure from western cynicism." Each of these assertions is contradicted by the facts contained in Khan's own pages.

Pakistan began, by some accounts, as a project to mollify the wounded pride of a tiny segment of north Indian Muslim nobility. The injury that history has inflicted on that nation's sense of destiny has produced a great torment among its custodians. Where this journey will culminate we do not know. But it is disturbing to discover that a seemingly sophisticated author can be so susceptible to an exclusionary dogma that, in the name of liberating a people, has only imprisoned them.

Kapil Komireddi, an Indian journalist, has written from South Asia, Eastern Europe and the Middle East.