In early 1984, based on some reports the Pakistani authorities got convinced that India, in collusion with Israel, had planned to tear down Pakistan’s nascent nuclear research facility in Kahuta. The Indians and the Israelis had reportedly propagated the fear that Pakistan was building an “Islamic” bomb, which could be used by a Muslim country or even by some terrorist organisation, to unleash terror and endanger the entire human race. Even in the midst of domestic pressures and politics in Pakistan, this was an emergency like no other.

Pakistan’s nuclear programme began in earnest in 1975, a year after India detonated its first nuclear device in Pokhran. Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto drew nuclear scientist Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan from the Almelo Uranium Enrichment Facility, Netherlands and asked him to undertake a similar nuclear project for Pakistan.

Bhutto had initially deputed Dr Khan to the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC), which was headed by Munir Ahmad at the time. Owing to differences in perception between Khan and Ahmad, no progress could be made that year.

As India, Israel plan attack on Kahuta, Pakistan threatens to retaliate with attack on Indian nuclear research facility

The prime minister wanted greater strides forward, at a more rapid pace: in July 1976, Dr Khan was installed in an autonomous position, tasked with creating a uranium enrichment project. The words uttered by Bhutto at the time still reverberate inside the corridors of power: “Pakistanis would eat grass but they will make their bomb.” Dr Khan would now be answerable to the prime minister alone.

With Bhutto’s unequivocal backing, Dr Khan began by first establishing the Engineering Research Laboratories in Kahuta. The project was launched on July 31, 1976, and within five years, it was taken to fruition. On May 1, 1981, in recognition of his services, the facility was renamed Dr A.Q. Khan Research Laboratory.

But was the facility secure from foreign attack?

As it turned out, protecting Kahuta became a key priority after the Pakistani government realised that it had left its most sensitive installation vulnerable to attack.

In 1979, as reports surfaced that India might attack the research facility in Kahuta, Chief Martial Law Administrator (CMLA) General Ziaul Haq sought the counsel of Chief of Air Staff Air Marshal Anwar Shamim regarding available options to beef up security. But the prognosis received was not encouraging: “The Indian aircraft can reach the facility in three minutes whereas the PAF would take eight minutes,” said the air chief, “[This will] allow the Indians to attack the facility and return before the PAF can defend it.”

Because Kahuta was close to the Pakistan-India border, it was decided that the best way to deter an Indian attack would be to upgrade air defence and procure new, advanced fighter jets and weaponry for the purpose. If India did go ahead and attack Kahuta, the new aircraft could be used to mount a retaliatory attack on India’s nuclear research facilities in Trombay. The generals decided that the most suitable aircraft for the purpose would be the F-16 Fighting Falcon.

In ordinary times, Pakistan might not have received these modern aircraft, but the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan had allowed Pakistan to leverage its relationship with the United States to its benefit. As part of the assistance being provided to Pakistan, the Americans had offered $400 million in assistance. Gen Zia had flatly rejected the proposed first tranche, calling it “peanuts” and not reflective of the costs being incurred by Pakistan on the war.

But the year 1983 opened with an appreciable gesture, when the US began sending military hardware to Pakistan. Initially, the US offered F-5Es and 5-Gs aircraft which Pakistan refused. Later the US agreed to sell F-16s; an agreement was inked in December 1981, whereby America was to sell 40 F-16 fighter jets to Pakistan. The first batch of three F-16 fighter jets reached Pakistan on Jan 15, 1983.

Meanwhile, a new phase of Indo-Israel bilateral ties had also begun, whereby the two countries were to extensively cooperate in all fields. Israel now wanted to eliminate Pakistan’s nuclear capability, like it did in Osiraq, Iraq in 1981. In their book Deception: Pakistan, the United States and the Global Nuclear Conspiracy (2007), noted investigative journalists Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott Clark reveal that Indian military officials secretly travelled to Israel in Feb 1983 to buy equipment that could neutralise Kahuta’s air defences.

The plan that India and Israel finally settled on took on an operation mode: Israel would attack Kahuta from Indian bases, with Levy and Clark claiming that Indira Gandhi signed off on the Israeli-led operation in March, 1984. With tensions simmering, India and Israel were forced to back off after the US State Department warned India that “the US will be responsive if India persists.”

But this retreat did not owe it all to the American response; Pakistan also sent out messages through world capitals that if India were to attack Pakistan’s nuclear facility in Kahuta, the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre in Trombay will be attacked in retaliation and the magnitude of devastation would be far greater than in Pakistan.

Air Marshal M. Anwar Shamim, during the launch of his memoirs Cutting age PAF: a former air chief’s reminiscences of a developing air force (2010), narrated that while talk of the India-Israel nexus was still in the air, he requested Foreign Minister Sahibzada Yaqub Ali Khan to declare at an appropriate time Pakistan’s intention of retaliating if any action was taken against the country’s nuclear assets.

During this time, Munir Hussain, the then secretary of science and technology, told his Indian counterpart at a science conference that there would be absolute devastation if India undertook such an attack. “No brother, we know your capability and we will not undertake such a mission,” was the reply received from the Indian delegate

But perhaps even more emphatic was the communication between the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission and the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre: Islamabad would attack Mumbai if Kahuta was attacked. The threat of retaliation was perhaps the biggest and the most effective deterrent needed.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, July 26th, 2015

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