Pakistan's Nuclear Past as Prologue

March 12, 2013 Topic: Nuclear Proliferation Region: Pakistan

Pakistan's Nuclear Past as Prologue

The chances of limits or reductions are remote.


Feroz Hassan Khan, Eating Grass: The Making of the Pakistani Bomb. 520 pp., $28.46.

The rivalry between India and Pakistan continues to be cause for serious concern. Since partition in 1947, the two countries have fought one another in three major wars and clashed in a number of more limited military engagements. Disputes over territory and a host of other issues persist. Earlier this year, skirmishes on the “line of control” in Kashmir reportedly left three Pakistani and two Indian soldiers dead. Political leaders in both New Delhi and Islamabad predictably responded with angry rhetoric. It is after all an election year in Pakistan—and campaigning is practically a year-round activity in India’s huge federal system.


Because both India and Pakistan are nuclear-armed states, the stakes of any armed conflict between the two countries are potentially enormous. Scholars disagree on the extent to which the very existence of nuclear weapons on the subcontinent may have lowered the prospects for all-out war during the past decade or so. Yet, even if nuclear weapons have had a deterrent effect, the potential for interstate violence nevertheless remains—and, with it, the ever-present possibility that some future crisis could escalate out of control regardless of what national leaders might actually intend. The consequences could be horrific not only for the region, but for the entire world.

Both India and Pakistan espouse a policy of “minimum deterrence”—though neither side has precisely defined what this actually means. Today, they each possess a stockpile of roughly one hundred nuclear weapons—with Pakistan having slightly more than its neighbor. While these are relatively modest numbers compared to those of the United States and Russia, the two countries are currently expanding their respective nuclear capabilities beyond their existing nuclear-capable fighter aircraft and medium-range land-based missiles. India is now conducting sea trials for its first indigenously produced nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarine (the Arihant). Less than a year ago, it also tested a ballistic missile (the Agni V) capable of reaching Beijing. For its part, Pakistan is said to be developing tactical nuclear warheads to mount atop a new, sixty kilometer-range mobile missile, the Nasr. Both sides are also reportedly taking steps to expand their capabilities to produce fissile materials.

These new programs reflect differing assessments of the threat each country faces. China’s economic rise and growing ability to project military power beyond its borders loom large in India’s strategic calculations. While both China and India have a “no-first-use” policy regarding nuclear weapons, Indian strategists have for years cited China’s nuclear capability as the principal rationale for developing Indian nuclear weapons—though perhaps they would be as much a symbol of national power as a deterrent force. Pakistan, on the other hand, seems most concerned about mitigating the imbalance in conventional military power created by India’s advantages in manpower and resources.

The Relevance of History

But weapons-development programs are not just a function of perceived threats. The momentum of past decisions also plays a role. This has certainly been the case in the United States. Choices made a half-century ago concerning the size and nature of the American nuclear forces, as well the complex of nuclear-weapon laboratories and production plants, continue to affect and constrain U.S. nuclear-weapons policy today. The same no doubt holds true for India and Pakistan. Their separate nuclear legacies will influence the course of the arms competition between them, as well as the prospects for confidence-building measures that could help avert a nuclear confrontation.

For this reason, an understanding of South Asia’s nuclear past is essential to assessing its nuclear future. The history of India’s nuclear-weapons program has been well documented. Though first published over a decade ago, George Perkovich’s India's Nuclear Bomb, remains essential reading for its comprehensive and compelling account of India’s often ambivalent pursuit of nuclear weapons. More recent works, especially retired Vice Admiral Verghese Koithara’s Managing India’s Nuclear Forces, provide informed and insightful updates on the current status of India’s nuclear forces. Until recently, however, one would have been hard pressed to find a full account of Pakistan’s nuclear-weapons program between the covers of a single book. While several studies have dealt with specific aspects of the story, such as A. Q. Khan’s notorious nuclear-proliferation network, or provided details on current policies and capabilities, a single, comprehensive history had yet to be written.

Fortunately, Feroz Hassan Khan’s Eating Grass: The Making of the Pakistani Bomb fills this gap in the literature. In this important and impressive new work, Khan traces the development of Pakistan’s nuclear-weapons program from partition to the present, examining, in his own words, “how and why Pakistan managed to overcome the wide array of obstacles that stood between it and nuclear weapons.”

Khan, a lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, confesses that chronicling Pakistan’s nuclear history was no easy task. Aside from the highly classified nature of many aspects of the program, the author also had to contend with the conflicting narratives offered by rival personalities, laboratories and institutions. Fortunately, Khan succeeds admirably in sifting through published accounts and weaving in details and anecdotes from his numerous interviews with key participants. Though he personally denies that the book is an “insider account,” his background as a former brigadier in the Pakistani army and a former director in the Strategic Plans Division of the Joint Services Headquarters—which essentially controls Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal—obviously served him well in assembling the pieces of the puzzle into an intelligible whole, as well as a highly readable narrative.

From Reluctance to Resolve

The book takes its title from a 1965 quote attributed to then foreign minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto that if India developed an atomic bomb, then Pakistan would follow suit “even if we have to feed on grass and leaves…” But as Feroz Khan points out, not everyone in Pakistan initially shared Bhutto’s fervor. Rather, for most of the 1950s and 1960s, a period dominated by the leadership of President Ayub Khan, Pakistan’s approach was decidedly cautious.

Fearing the potential political and economic repercussions of overtly pursuing a nuclear weapons program, the Pakistani government and nuclear establishment concentrated instead on training a cadre of scientist and engineers and on developing the capability to indigenously build power plants. The Eisenhower administration’s “Atoms for Peace” program, including the opportunity for Pakistanis to study in American universities, played a crucial role in this regard. While such efforts could be considered necessary precursors to an active nuclear weapons program, that apparently was not Pakistan’s principal objective at the time. As Feroz Khan puts it, “… Ayub never explicitly rejected the bomb option. He simply decided not to decide.”

The catalyst for changing course was the shattering defeat Pakistan suffered at the hands of the Indian army in the 1971 war, during which Pakistan lost half of its territory (when East Pakistan broke away to become Bangladesh). Khan argues that a sense of “never again” and a corresponding inability (or unwillingness) to rely upon allies have been powerful motivators for some countries to “go nuclear,” most notably China and Israel. The same held true for Pakistan. It also made a difference that Bhutto came to power in the war’s immediate aftermath. Almost immediately, he abruptly changed the leadership of the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) and set it on a path to developing a nuclear weapon. After India conducted a “peaceful nuclear explosion” in 1974, there was essentially no turning back for Pakistan.

The Pakistani program, however, was beset by a host of challenges. Sectarian prejudices, particularly against members of the Ahmadi sect, meant that some highly capable nuclear scientists and engineers were deliberately excluded from important segments of the program. The loss of East Pakistan in 1971 also thinned the ranks of trained and experienced specialists. Beginning in the mid-1960s, the United States and other nations became increasingly concerned with the potential danger of nuclear proliferation and began to progressively restrict the flow of enabling technologies to would-be proliferators. Negotiations for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty were completed in 1968.

Thus, by the time Bhutto launched a nuclear-weapon program in earnest, Pakistan was forced, in Feroz Khan’s words, to “tap into any and every source that would help Pakistan complete its fuel cycle. Where rules were lax, critical supplies were procured from the West, and when nonproliferation barriers increased, those supplies were found by other, less explicit means.” Chinese assistance with materials and designs at various stages also played a pivotal role. The author, however, rejects the notion that Pakistan’s ultimate success was simply the result of a “stolen program.” He argues instead that indigenous intellectual capital and making do with existing technologies—which he characterizes with the Punjabi term joogaardh—were indispensable elements of Pakistan’s overall effort.

Perhaps one of the more fascinating aspects of Eating Grass is its description of the intense institutional rivalries that plagued the Pakistani program. The author calls this chapter of the story the “clash of the Khans,” involving Munir Ahmad Khan, chairman of the PAEC from 1972 to 1991, and the now infamous A.Q. Khan, director of the Engineering (later renamed Khan) Research Laboratory (KRL) from 1976 to 2001. Intense personal jealousies led to bickering and constant maneuvering for political favor. The two organizations also differed on substantive technical issues, including the best path to developing a weapon (reprocessing plutonium versus enriching uranium) and the best approach to developing ballistic missiles (solid-fuel versus liquid-fuel).