Stealth, conviction and the bomb

Nuclear sanctions in Pakistan started in 1977 and still continue. —May1998, — APP
Nuclear sanctions in Pakistan started in 1977 and still continue. —May1998, — APP

This was originally published on August 14, 2022.


 Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif visits the site of Pakistan’s nuclear test in the aftermath of May 28, 1998 at the Ras Koh Hills in the Chagai District of Balochistan. (Courtesy: White Star Photo)
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif visits the site of Pakistan’s nuclear test in the aftermath of May 28, 1998 at the Ras Koh Hills in the Chagai District of Balochistan. (Courtesy: White Star Photo)

DURING a 90-minute meeting in August 2016 in Ankara, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recalled an interesting conversation for us. “The French foreign minister once told me that Pakistan managed to develop its nuclear programme and became a nuclear power since they (the West) were too preoccupied confronting the Soviet Union during the Cold War. ‘Never again will we allow any other Muslim country to have the bomb’,” he quoted the French official as saying.

But just how did Pakistan — a poor country with no oil, unlike Iran, Iraq or Libya (who each tried but failed to get the bomb) — an inefficient, unstable state which often lacked coordination, manage to evade scrutiny, bypass the might of the West and build the bomb? Five reasons stand out.

First, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s vision, which he enunciated within the first month of taking office during his famous Multan meeting with nuclear scientists in January 1972, as well as his indomitable will to translate that vision into reality.

Second, the inspiring leadership of Dr A.Q. Khan and his competent and committed team of dedicated scientists, who worked with a crusader’s zeal to make the bomb.

Just how did Pakistan, a country with so few resources and a dysfunctional state apparatus, manage to bypass Western intelligence and withstand subsequent global pressure to become a nuclear power? MUSHAHID HUSSAIN SAYED narrates a story of unwavering conviction and consistent effort.

Third, the Afghan War during the height of the Cold War, which provided convenient cover for pursuing the nuclear project, as the United States and the West were totally focussed on confronting the Soviet Union.

Fourth, pursuing the project on a war footing with a one-window operation, bypassing ‘the system’ and keeping the nuclear project a separate, autonomous entity — a ‘state within a state’ unencumbered by red tape and the drudgery of drafting PC-Is, having to be audited, seeking budget approvals, or having work interrupted by intrusive bosses.

Fifth, Bhutto’s three-man committee under Ghulam Ishaq Khan, which included A.G.N. Kazi and Agha Shahi — all three civil servants of unimpeachable integrity, committed Pakistani nationalists who could neither be bought nor pressured. Agha Shahi provided Dr Khan and his core team diplomatic passports to facilitate their travel, while the Pakistan Army’s Corps of Engineers created a Special Works Organisation for the construction of the Kahuta. Lt Gen Ali Zamin Naqvi, who was in charge of security for the project, had his own team, with no interference from even intelligence outfits like the ISI or the IB.

The senior scientists’ troika of Prof Dr Abdus Salam, Dr I.H. Usmani and Munir Ahmed Khan, plus other top scientists from the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC), like Dr Ashfaq Ahmed and Dr Samar Mubarakmand, also deserve credit because, in their own ways, they helped create a vast and enabling science and technology infrastructure that made the pursuit of the bomb more feasible. Through their efforts, hundreds of foreign-trained, skilled scientists were put to work on the nuclear project.

Pakistan’s quest for the bomb was predicated on a dual plank approach: ‘Strategic Ambiguity’ (always denying nuclear ambitions, but never ruling them out either); and ‘Selective Messaging’ (building on strategic ambiguity, selective messaging was used whenever there was a perceived threat and an enemy needed to be deterred, as was the case in 1984, 1987 and 1990).

In 1984, when Indira Gandhi was facing the Khalistan insurgency, which she blamed on Pakistan, India, in collusion with Israel, had planned an Iraq-type air raid to destroy Kahuta. However, the CIA tipped General Zia off. It was then that selective messaging first came into play. Dr Khan ‘revealed’ during a February 10, 1984, media interview that Pakistan had already achieved capability to produce weapons-grade uranium, and “in the event of the destruction of Kahuta, more than one such plant can be set up in Pakistan”.

A fortnight later, on February 27, 1984, Gen Zia confirmed the statement in remarks to the media. In April 1984, English daily The Muslim (of which I was then the editor) was given the government’s blessing to organise the first-ever Pakistan-India Track-II in Islamabad. It brought in prominent Indian journalists and opinion leaders and helped create an embryonic ‘peace constituency’ in mainstream Indian media. The raid never took place.

In January 1987, when India organised the largest military manoeuvres in the history of South Asia since 1947, fear developed in Pakistan that Exercise Brasstacks could be the precursor of Operation Brasstacks, with Indian forces having converged closer to the land border.

It was in this context that, on January 28, 1987, Dr Khan told eminent Indian journalist Kuldeep Nayyar at his residence in Islamabad, in my presence: “Be clear, we shall use the bomb if our existence is threatened.” The interview was published in India and internationally on March 1, 1987.

Interestingly, like the messaging in 1984, Gen Zia personally corroborated the interview when he told TIME magazine on March 30, 1987: “You can virtually write today that Pakistan can build a bomb whenever it wishes. What is difficult about a bomb once you have acquired the technology which Pakistan has – you can do with it whatever you like.” Exercise Brasstacks, which had started with a bang, ended on a whimper.

In the spring of 1990, when India was unable to subdue the popular uprising in Occupied Kashmir, there was again a threat of Indian aggression. Pakistan sent Sahibzada Yaqub Khan to India with an uncharacteristically harsh message, which the usually soft-spoken foreign minister conveyed to his Indian counterpart, I.K. Gujral.

“War clouds are hovering over the subcontinent,” he simply warned. At the same time, the US intelligence claimed to have ‘picked up’ some nuclear-related activity in Pakistan, causing President Bush to rush his Deputy National Security Adviser Robert Gates to Pakistan and India, which helped in the defusion of the crisis.

No wonder that 25 years later, on August 31, 2012, India’s National Security Adviser, Shiv Shankar Menon, complained in a speech to a disarmament conference in New Delhi: “On at least three occasions before 1998, some powers used explicit or implicit threats of nuclear blackmail to try and change India’s behaviour.”

India apart, the United States was among those implacably opposed to Pakistan’s acquisition of the bomb. On at least two occasions, massive American pressure was put on Pakistan apart from the sanctions already in place.

In August 1979, after the US discovered the Kahuta Complex, the Americans deliberately leaked a story to The New York Times which stated that the US was preparing plans to “disable” it. A worried Gen Zia despatched a high-powered delegation to Washington in October 1979 for talks with the Carter administration.

Foreign Minister Agha Shahi led the delegation, which included three-star generals K.M. Arif, Sahibzada Yaqub and Ghulam Jilani Khan. The Americans remained unconvinced, and Agha Shahi was bluntly told that, by pursuing the nuclear programme, “you are entering the Valley of Death”.

Interestingly, around the same time that this delegation was weaving circles around the Americans regarding the ‘peaceful nature’ of the Pakistani nuclear programme, Gen Zia had secretly directed his trusted nuclear scientist, Dr Ashfaq Ahmed, to go scouting for the site of a future nuclear test. The Chagai site was chosen in October 1979, some 19 years before the actual test!

Later, in the aftermath of the Gulf War, when the Soviet Union was collapsing and America’s imperial hubris was at its height after it proclaimed a New World Order, US under-secretary of state Reginald Bartholomew visited Pakistan in November 1991 with a one-point agenda: make Islamabad roll back the nuclear programme.

After icy interactions with the prime minister and the army chief, he had a stormy meeting with president Ghulam Ishaq Khan, who put him on the spot with his amazing command of facts, figures and the law. The senior American diplomat angrily walked out of the meeting as an expression of annoyance at Pakistan’s uncompromising hard line on its nuclear programme. He denounced Ishaq Khan as ‘Mr Nuke’, and spewed some choice but unprintable epithets for his Pakistani interlocutors.

The last lap in the bomb project was quite fortuitous. On April 6, 1998, I was at the PM House with Mian Nawaz Sharif, who at the time was the prime minister, when he received army chief Gen Jehangir Karamat and Dr Khan. They proudly played the cassette of Pakistan’s successful test of Ghauri, a missile with a 1,500km range armed with a nuclear warhead. This was a strategic game-changer because Indian targets were now within range of Pakistan’s most lethal weapon.

On May 11, 1998, the former prime minister and I were in Kazakhstan for a summit. It had just ended and we were trekking in the hills around Almaty when we got the shocking news that India had tested the bomb. When Nawaz asked my opinion, I said: “Mian Sahib, it’s now or never. India has provided us a golden opportunity; we should go for the blast.”

When Indian prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had come to Lahore in February 1999 on his historic bus ride, Nawaz smilingly opened the talks by thanking the Indian leader “for providing us the opportunity which enabled Pakistan to become a nuclear power”. Vajpayee listened unfazed, unsmiling.

The period between May 11, when India tested, and May 28, when Pakistan responded, was probably Pakistan’s finest hour. The planning and execution were meticulous. There were broad consultations with the political leadership and opinion leaders, followed by a national consensus. Our messaging was mature and reasoned minus any jingoism, or even a hint of any triumphalism.

The single most important national security decision in the history of Pakistan was purely a civilian decision taken by the elected political leadership. Among the three service chiefs, one was opposed, one supported and the third was neutral, saying “Sir, it is your decision”.

When the history of the bomb is written, the credit must go to five individuals for pulling off this historic feat. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, for initiating the programme and pushing it with single-minded determination. Ghulam Ishaq Khan, for personally supervising the project for 17 years, from 1976 to 1993, with an unwavering resolve. Dr A.Q. Khan and his talented team, for pulling off what was widely perceived as a ‘mission impossible’. Gen Zia, for continuing the programme through a sophisticated stealth approach of deception, quite similar to how other countries, like Israel and India, got their bombs. And, finally, Nawaz Sharif, for taking the momentous decision to detonate the bomb, defying all the pressures and inducements to the contrary.

At the end of the day, this was truly a national achievement. As Pakistan celebrates 75 years of its independence, the bomb project remains an eloquent testimony to the resilience of our nation. Given leadership and strategic clarity, Pakistanis can rise to the occasion and deliver, and, in the immortal words of the Quaid-i-Azam, “prove themselves equal to the task”.

The writer is a journalist who was Editor of The Muslim, and currently chairs the Senate Defense Committee.

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