Zulfikar Ali Bhutto with Henry Kissinger before America turned against Pakistan’s nuclear programme — Dawn Library

Reviewed by Madiha Sattar

A new book on Pakistan’s militancy problem now seems to appear every couple of months. Walking into most bookstores means being accosted by new accounts by Americans, Pakistanis and some Europeans of how the country’s national security and foreign policies have created or fostered monsters both Pakistan and the world fears today. Another favourite topic is the collapse of Pakistan — speculating on when, why and how likely it is to happen.

What we don’t get to read much about — or at least not much beyond tales of A.Q. Khan’s nuclear proliferation racket — is something the West is perhaps even more concerned about: Pakistan’s nuclear programme. That project is ultimately the reason why a collapse or takeover of the country has been one of America’s worst nightmares for the last decade and a half, and yet it is the most superficial piece of the picture of today’s Pakistan that analysts and journalists have been trying to paint.

The lack of writing, or at least of accessible and non-academic writing, on Pakistan’s nuclear programme is for obvious reasons. The story is a complex one shrouded in secrecy, controversy and contradictory accounts, both for security reasons and because of interpersonal and organisational rivalries within the programme, making it nearly impossible for a Pakistani, let alone a foreigner, to unravel the story of Pakistan’s bomb.

Enter onto this stage Feroz Hassan Khan, a former brigadier in the Strategic Plans Division — which oversees Pakistan’s nuclear programme — and now a professor of security affairs at the NavalPostgraduateSchool in California. Khan managed to combine his military service, including a decade working on the nuclear programme, with research work that included a graduate degree from Johns Hopkins’ international affairs school and fellowships at Stanford, Brookings and Woodrow Wilson.

The resulting approach is a unique one. Khan not only reveals the inside story of the development of the Pakistani bomb in Eating Grass: The Making of the Pakistani Bomb, but also analyses it through theoretical frameworks that are clearly informed by academic work. His source material includes interviews of Pakistani civilian and military officials and scientists associated with the programme — though he was only allowed to interview retired officials for the book, and only with a pre-approved list of questions — and information from declassified American documents.

For one, then, the book is interesting for the level of detail it provides about the specifics of the programme itself: how Pakistan acquired, mined or built the needed fuel, equipment and weapons, what nuclear assets the country has today, the capabilities of the various facilities across the country, how and when those facilities came about.

More interesting, though, is the political and geopolitical narrative against whose backdrop all of this came together, from the earliest days of Pakistan’s interest in nuclear power to meet energy needs through Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s directive that a bomb be developed and the culmination of the programme with the 1998 test. And that backdrop is what balances out the otherwise technical material in the book: Pakistan’s lifelong weaknesses vis a vis India; America veering between sanctioning Pakistan for its nuclear programme and showering it with aid when a partner against the Soviets or Al Qaeda was needed; Pakistan’s shifting political landscape as it swung back and forth between civilian and military governments; the country’s efforts to manoeuvre around increasingly stringent restrictions on international trade in nuclear fuel and equipment while still opening up much of the programme to IAEA inspection; and the competition within the programme itself, between A.Q. Khan’s work at Khan Research Laboratories and that of the scientists at the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission.

The political analysis here is not particularly remarkable, but it is integral to the story of the world’s first and only ‘Islamic bomb’. Presented within this narrative, the technical material comes to life, now part of a story about a weak country confronted with a host of geopolitical and internal problems that somehow, against remarkable odds, managed to produce a nuclear weapon.

Which leads to the question of the general tenor of this book. Despite its title, Eating Grass will be disappointing for those looking for a work that questions the need for the nuclear programme itself. Khan clearly views the nuclear weapon as one of Pakistan’s greatest achievements and a necessity given India’s ownership of it. There is awe and respect in these pages for the scientists who developed the programme. And regardless of one’s views on the desirability of Pakistan building a nuclear weapon, the story of those scientists really is one of dogged determination to achieve a near-impossible task, one requiring a sophistication unlike anything else Pakistan has undertaken.

But beyond that, Khan is clearly a believer in the narrative about India’s aggressive posture and Pakistan having no choice but to build a bomb. There is some questioning of decisions taken by the military and by others involved in the programme, such as Kargil and A.Q. Khan’s proliferation network (which in this telling was a private project undertaken by a highly respected individual gone rogue). But uncomfortable questions remain. Even if, for example, A.Q. Khan’s proliferation was for personal gain and therefore corrupt, how different was it from the Pakistani state’s own activities when it was using A.Q. and others to acquire fuel and equipment from Libya, North Korea and China for the country’s own programme, a process the author describes in great detail? What were the economic and social consequences for ordinary Pakistanis of the acquisition of a nuclear weapon?

Though it does talk about international pressure and sanctions, Eating Grass is not in fact about the sacrifices Pakistanis had to make in order to own such a weapon. It argues that the weapon makes them safer, and that it is an extraordinary, and unparalleled, achievement for Pakistan. The book is worth reading for a story and for research that have not been shared before. What it will not provide are tough questions about whether Pakistan should have developed a weapon at all.

The reviewer is a Dawn staffer

Eating Grass: The Making of the Pakistani Bomb


By Feroz Hassan Khan

StanfordUniversityPress, US

ISBN 9780804776011

552pp. $29.95