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Making the Bomb: Pakistan’s Nuclear Journey

Eating Grass: The Making of the Pakistani Bomb
Feroz H. Khan (Stanford: Stanford UP, 2012)

Developed in secrecy and tested in defiance, Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program has been a point of pride for Pakistanis, a worrisome portent for Indians, a source of profit for nuclear proliferators, and a security concern for US policymakers. While much is feared, little is really known about Pakistan’s nuclear program. Retired Brigadier General Feroz Khan’s Eating Grass (the title comes from a 1965 statement by Pakistan’s then Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto proclaiming that if India acquired the bomb, so would Pakistan, even if it had to “eat grass, or leaves or even go hungry”) is important because it presents a complete account of Pakistan’s quest for nuclear weapons, with close focus on the role played by culture, personality, domestic, regional, and global politics, and technical challenges in the development of the “Islamic Bomb.”

The book’s author is a former Pakistan Army officer and senior official in the National Command Authority. Khan was not only a key policymaker in Pakistan’s nuclear command and control system, but played important roles in negotiations with American and Indian officials over the nuclear program, especially regarding Pakistan’s force posture.

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Drawing on primary and secondary sources, his own experiences, and numerous interviews with decisionmakers and former scientists who were intimately involved in the program, Khan recapitulates Pakistan’s nuclear journey. He analyzes key decisions by its leaders that shaped the trajectory of Pakistan’s strategic capabilities and its foreign relations, bureaucratic disputes over the program, and competition between actors in the scientific community trying to put their individual stamp on the bomb.

 

Eating Grass begins in the 1960s, during General Ayub Khan’s military dictatorship, when many Pakistani leaders were reluctant to pursue nuclear weapons because they felt the country could not afford them. The author then provides a blow-by-blow account of several major decisions that created a weapons program, and then the cold tests in 1983, and finally the testing of the bomb itself in 1998.

Inside this chronology, Khan also explores the technological and capacity challenges Pakistani scientists faced, especially as the global nonproliferation regime made nuclear trade increasingly difficult. He details how they developed uranium enrichment and plutonium production capabilities and the secret procurement networks to supply the clandestine program. Along the way, Khan reveals the intense rivalry that developed between the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) and the Khan Research Laboratories to develop and claim credit for the weapon.

The role of foreign countries was a significant part of this nuclear journey. Once Canada stopped supplying nuclear technology, Pakistan received loans and investments worth hundreds of millions of dollars from Libya, along with yellowcake from Niger and uranium from Chad. China provided high enriched uranium and a bomb design, and helped in missile production.

No history of Pakistan’s march toward nuclearization would be complete, of course, without the sub-narrative of complications caused in relations between Pakistan and the US, which was initially strongly opposed to the nuclear program, but later became covertly complicit in it, only subsequently to punish Pakistan and ultimately grudgingly accept its membership in the international nuclear club.

Khan also discusses Pakistan’s nuclear doctrine, the development of its command and control system, and the way the notorious scientist A.Q. Khan became the government’s proliferator in chief, selling Pakistan’s nuclear innovations to the North Koreans, Iranians, and others.

The fundamental question driving this book is why Pakistan decided to acquire nuclear weapons in the first place. Khan attributes this decision to “Pakistan’s unique strategic culture”—that is, the beliefs, values, and historical experiences of the ruling elite that influenced how it perceives and responds to the security environment. He contends that the defeat and dismemberment of Pakistan in the 1971 war and India’s 1974 nuclear tests, which altered the balance of power, became central components of Pakistan’s strategic culture, leading to the perception that nuclear weapons were a national necessity.

But between the lines of the book is a slightly different story: that domestic politics rather than national security per se was key to the decision to go forward with a nuclear program. As Scott Sagan, a renowned scholar of nuclear weapons, has argued, countries acquire nuclear weapons because individuals within the nuclear energy establishment and research laboratories (who benefit financially and in terms of prestige), the military, and political leaders become chief advocates for acquisition of these weapons, seeing them as tools to accomplish parochial political or bureaucratic goals.

In the case at hand, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, the prime minister (1973–77) who made the decision to go nuclear, already belonged to a coalition comprising PAEC scientists and some foreign-ministry bureaucrats who had been strongly advocating such a capability since at least 1965. By the time he took office, the military was also on board. Thus the desire to pursue nuclear weapons predated the 1971 war or India’s 1974 tests. In Khan’s own words, with Bhutto’s rise, “the bomb lobby was now in power.”

 

According to weapons specialist Bhumitra Chakma, Pakistan’s nuclear program has faced two key challenges: the absence of a formally declared nuclear doctrine, including ambiguity about the “redline risks” that could prompt use, and the lack of an institutionalized and transparent command and control system.

Pakistan’s ten-point nuclear doctrine is India-focused, and has three major principles: minimum credible deterrence, nuclear first use, and massive retaliation. While arguing that counterforce targeting is increasingly becoming a principle for both Pakistan and India, Khan also reports that Pakistan is operationalizing its minimal deterrence concept by continually improving its delivery means, by inducting ballistic and cruise missiles, and by developing a second-strike capability.

What’s missing in this book is an investigation into Pakistan’s redline risks beyond what is already known. Khan states that the nuclear program has two objectives: deterring India from overwhelming Pakistan with a conventional attack and using nuclear weapons in the event of an Indian invasion, the sizable destruction of its armed forces, or Indian-perpetrated political destabilization and economic strangulation. While Khan acknowledges that these criteria are “deliberately imprecise,” the ambiguity, he argues, is a non-issue because with “the unlikelihood of Pakistan’s accepting a no-first-use policy, the doctrinal puzzle of the Pakistani nuclear program is put to rest.”

But the author does provide an insightful analysis of the most critical issue: Pakistan’s nuclear command and control architecture. Since 2000 the National Command Authority, composed of chief civilian and military leaders, has been responsible for decisionmaking on the program’s policy, planning, procurement, and use. Nevertheless this oversight and control system was developed almost forty-five years after the weapons program began. The author attributes A. Q. Khan’s ability to erect an alternative universe of proliferation to this absence of oversight, explaining that Khan’s significant autonomy in secretly procuring nuclear technology for Pakistan and immunity from regularly reporting to a government body allowed his private and illicit operations to go undetected.

In the aftermath of the “Khan Network” fiasco, Pakistan revised its export control laws, while the Strategic Plans Division (SPD) began using assessment tools, such as Personnel and Human Reliability Programs, to screen personnel, and created a security force with an intelligence unit to counter assaults, espionage, and other threats against nuclear installations and weapons.

But while the author describes the reforms in command and control, explains that Pakistan undertakes a variety of assessments to ensure the “secrecy, dispersal, and survivability” of its strategic weapons against foreign attacks, and mentions that safety measures are in place for weapons storage and transport, he inexplicably fails to address directly the threat of terrorists acquiring Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and materials, perhaps the greatest concern among US and international policymakers today.

There has been a steady accumulation of books on Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program, ranging from accounts by former Pakistani military officers giving their views about why Pakistan sought the bomb, to academic analyses exploring nuclear deterrence and stability in South Asia, to journalistic accounts focusing on Pakistan’s covert acquisition of nuclear technology, the Khan Network’s proliferation, and America’s secret compliance in exchange for assistance during the Soviet-Afghan war and the War on Terror.

Khan’s book is a bit of all of this, framed by an insider account of Pakistani decisionmaking that can help policymakers better understand how Pakistani leaders thought through some of the most crucial decisions of the country’s history, what assumptions they made, and how they view the world. A nuanced narrative accessible to a general readership, Eating Grass is a comprehensive study on how and why Pakistan went nuclear. 

Shehzad H. Qazi is a research associate at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding.

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