AQ Khan and Nuclear Bomb : Part VI : Some Background

In the 1960s Pakistan had regarded itself as Washington’s “most allied ally” as a result of a trick of geography. [Whenever Pakistani military is at the helm, Pakistan ends up being a dog of US _  “most allied ally”]  Pakistan had forged numerous military pacts with a US that feared Soviet expansion in the Middle East and Asia.  However, in recent years the US–Pakistan relationship had become strained. Washington had grown to doubt Islamabad’s sincerity. A classified memo written for the director of the CIA had catalogued a list of complaints. “Over the past several years the government of Pakistan has taken a long series of actions that have been counter to US interest,” it bemoaned. Islamabad had failed to honor America’s request to send troops into Laos in 1962 and also had declined to “give good publicity to US military exercises” in 1963. The US also suspected Pakistan of making “secret understandings” with the Chinese premier, Chou En-lai, in 1963 and 1964.

On 18 May 1974, India had conducted an unauthorized nuclear test deep below the western deserts of Rajasthan. It had done so by betraying the trust of its sponsors in the West and the East. New Delhi had secretly designed and armed its bomb using technologies sold it by the world’s established nuclear powers (the United States, United Kingdom, France, China and the Soviet Union) on condition that this knowledge was shared only to meet India’s energy needs.

Pakistan felt as if it been duped, as well as eclipsed, outwitted and shamed, by an action that seemed to prime minister Bhutto to confirm India’s claim to regional supremacy. Islamabad had to reply. But the science was far beyond Pakistan’s capabilities and the trade in the components required to put a nuclear program together would now be policed with extra vigilance by the four nuclear states that were signatories to the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (the US, UK, France and the USSR), which forbade the sale of nuclear weapons technology. Anticipating a nuclear arms race in South Asia, the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), based in Vienna, would redouble its efforts, making Pakistan’s task that much harder.

Bhutto sought a diplomatic solution, sending Sahabzada Yaqub Khan, Pakistan’s ambassador in Washington, to lobby for a nuclear umbrella—reassurances from the US that it would act as Pakistan’s security guarantor against at attack. As predicted, secretary of state Henry Kissinger was cold to Bhutto’s request. Kissinger argued that if the US gathered up Pakistan in its nuclear folds, it would have had to do the same for other countries in the region, some of whom were far less desirable allies, such as North Korea. Kissinger told Yaqub Khan that India’s bomb test was “a fait accompli and that Pakistan would have to learn to live with it.”

Pakistan’s nuclear project consisted of the grand-sounding Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) and was run by Dr. Nazir Ahmed, a scientist who had previously worked in the country’s cotton industry. However, it took Bhutto some time to locate Ahmed, whose operation was in reality nothing more than a small office on the top floor of the main post office in downtown Karachi. By 1958, the only thing PAEC had achieved was to open a high-energy physics lab at Karachi’s West Wharf, where ten scientists conducted random experiments the purpose and results of which remained obscure. It was “no more than a signboard on an office. It was only a name,” Bhutto moaned.

He began transforming PAEC, “with granite determination,” sending hundreds of Pakistani scientists to the US for training under an Atoms for Peace exchange. He also brought into the program Dr. Ishrat Usmani, an atomic physicist who, together with Bhutto, set out to buy all that America had to offer, using US aid money to fund the purchases—a plan that would be mirrored many times over in the years to come. By 1961, PAEC had a nuclear research center, in Lahore. Two years later it assembled a 5 MW research reactor at Nilore, near Islamabad.

On 20 January 1972, several weeks after Pakistan’s humiliating defeat at the hands of the Indian army in Dacca, Bhutto called together his most eminent scientists. They convened in Multan, a city of shrines and saints in the southern Punjab, and sat shaded from the winter sun by a shamiana, a multicolored canvas awning, in the gardens of the home of Nawab Sadiq Hussain Qureshi, a wealthy landowner close to Bhutto. Agha Shahi, who was then Pakistan’s ambassador to China, recalled: “The meeting was shrouded in secrecy…”

One of those invited to attend was Samar Mubarakmand, a junior scientist who would go on to play a crucial role in Pakistan’s nuclear test twenty-six years later. He remembered being held rapt by the prime minister, who vowed to restore Pakistan’s pride. Bhutto told them that fate had placed him in a position where he could make decisions that would lead the country into the nuclear arms race. “Can you give it to me?” he asked, referring to the bomb. Mubarakmand recalled the shocked silence: “We were absolutely dumbfounded.” According to most estimates Pakistan was at least twenty years behind India, and Dr. Ishrat Usmani, the PAEC chairman, remembered inserting a note of caution: “Pakistan just didn’t have the infrastructure for that kind of program. I’m not talking about the ability to get 10 kg of plutonium. I’m talking about the real infrastructure. Pakistan totally lacked a metallurgy industry. But if you’re playing political poker and have no cards, you have to go on betting.”

Bhutto repeated his question: “Can you give it to me?” Some of the younger scientists jumped to their feet, tired of the ponderousness of their older colleagues. “Yes, it would be possible,” one of them, Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood, shouted. He would go on to dedicate his career to working on Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program with a zealotry that would eventually bring him close to Osama bin Laden and into collision with the US. Bhutto fired back: “But how long will it take to build a bomb?” When Bashiruddin mumbled, “Maybe five years,” Bhutto thrust three fingers into the air. “Three years,” he said. “I want it in three.”

Others tried to introduce a note of caution. “It isn’t like making firecrackers, you know,” one scientist piped up. “We don’t know how long it will take. It’s all nonsense. It cannot be done that way.” But the younger and more idealistic in the gathering joined in a chorus of “Anybody can make a bomb.” One of those leading the clamor for a nuclear device was Sulfikar Ahmed Butt, who within a few years would become procurement manager in Europe for the as yet unknown A. Q. Khan. Butt shouted out: “It can be done in three years.”

Bhutto smiled. “Well, much as I admire your enthusiasm, this is a very serious political decision, which Pakistan must make, and perhaps all Third World countries must make one day, because it is coming. So can you do it?” Everybody present agreed to agree that Pakistan could do it, given sufficient resources and facilities. Mubarakmand remembered: “At that conference we really swore to make nuclear weapons. We knew it would be a great odyssey as at the time of partition from India there were hardly any scientists or engineers in our country … At that time we lived under embargoes. No one would give us literature, hardware, components, technology. For everything we had to struggle. We had to work under adverse circumstances and we took it up as a challenge. We thought, ‘OK, you cannot do it for us, we shall show you how to do it.’ ”

Bhutto brought the meeting to a close. Just hours later, he left on a whirlwind tour of Islamic countries that Pakistan intended to ally itself with, including Iran, Saudi Arabia and Libya.32 Bhutto was keen to create some distance from the “super-power shikaris” (big-game hunters), as he described Pakistan’s backers in the West. On tour, with his hat out for cash, he landed in Tripoli where he met Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. What struck Bhutto, after all the cold political maneuvering of the Americans, was the spontaneity of the greeting from the Libyan leader, who planted a kiss on both his cheeks as they stood on the tarmac. Gaddafi promised to give Bhutto whatever he needed to develop the bomb, before Pakistan’s prime minister carried on to tour the Middle East, where yet more sponsors were procured. At the end of the trip he called on Chairman Mao in Beijing, whom he had been wooing since the early 1960s. The friendships forged on this tour would be critical in rewriting Pakistan’s strategic partnerships, and from these alliances would emerge sponsors in the nuclear weapons field and also, in time, a ready market.

However, more than two years on, nothing had been achieved on the nuclear front. A team at PAEC had pursued the plutonium route and got nowhere with it, and was still arguing with the international community over terms for the purchase of a French reprocessing plant.

Excerpted from “Shopping for Bombs: Nuclear Proliferation, Global Insecurity, and the Rise and Fall of the A.Q. Khan Network

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