How Pakistan got the Bomb

Pakistan’s Nuclear Bomb: A Story of Defiance, Deterrence and Deviance
Hassan Abbas
Penguin Random House
341 pages; Rs 699

Few nation states export terrorism. Fewer still proliferate nuclear weapon systems. Pakistan has done both. By taking such a path, Pakistan has become an international problem to contend with and much less a normal nation state to engage with. Pakistan’s Nuclear Bomb tells the story of a major component that constitutes this Pakistan “problem” — how and why Pakistan acquired its nuclear weapons, and then went on to export them.

The author is Hassan Abbas, one of the investigators who probed charges of corruption against the now infamous Abdul Qadeer Khan during Pervez Musharraf’s reign. He is now a professor at National Defense University, Washington DC. Mr Abbas uses the bureaucratic politics model, first proposed by Graham Allison in his seminal work Essence of Decision, to explain “how A Q Khan, along with some other players in the military and civilian bureaucracy, was able to manipulate the system and transfer technology to Iran, North Korea, and Libya”.

One chapter in the book focuses on how Pakistan acquired the nuclear deterrent. As with many other countries, the Atoms for Peace programme helped Pakistan in developing expertise in the nuclear domain. This newly found capability coupled with Z A Bhutto’s drive and A Q Khan’s resourcefulness eventually led to the development of nuclear weapons. However, the author also contends that national security concerns arising from the loss to India in 1971 and India’s subsequent nuclear test in 1974 played the most significant role in converting Pakistan’s civilian nuclear programme into a military one.

Because the author deploys a bureaucratic politics model, he manages to capture less-known details of personality clashes between Bhutto and Ayub Khan over nuclear weaponisation, and the institutional rivalries between the Khan Research Laboratories (KRL) and Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC). But what Mr Abbas describes best is the resourcefulness of A Q Khan. An extremely well-connected person, Mr Khan used his professional connections in Europe to obtain specific technical information at various stages during the development of the programme. To avoid export controls, he purchased individual components of technology rather than entire units. When even that was not possible, he systematically falsified end-user certificates, and forged order forms. While the book goes in great detail about Mr Khan’s manoeuvring, it makes only passing references to Chinese assistance for Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme. So, those who want to learn more about the Chinese involvement will have to wait for another book.

The book then proceeds to explain Pakistan’s proliferation links with Iran, Libya, and North Korea. This is an area that has been explored by many authors ever since the proliferation network was exposed in 2004. Yet, Mr Abbas manages to bring some fresh insights. On proliferation, the first question that occurs to a reader is: Who was really behind this? Was it a rogue operation run by Mr Khan alone, a larger rogue operation involving a few military and political leaders besides Mr Khan, or a state-sanctioned exercise? Mr Abbas’ answer is nuanced. He proposes that different motivations, circumstances, and players were involved in the different stages of proliferation. 

His assessment is that “Khan acted on behalf of the sovereign state in the initial phase of nuclear proliferation (for example, making initial contact with Iran in 1987). In the second stage (contact with North Korea from 1992), Khan represented the government of Pakistan, and he was possibly in league with the military leadership while the civilian leadership was duped. During the third stage, Khan started operating independently, and the Libya deal was finalised during this period”.

The book, however, assumes Pakistan as a normal geopolitical entity. It is not. What we call Pakistan comprises the putative state (represented by the civilian government), and the military-jihadi complex (MJC). This MJC is a dynamic syndicate of military, militant, radical Islamist and political-economic structures that pursues a set of domestic and foreign policies to ensure its own survival and dominance. The MJC’s aims and motivations are often orthogonal to the interests of the putative state and Pakistani society. With this framework in mind, understanding the proliferation cases that Mr Abbas writes about becomes a whole lot easier. While the putative state’s involvement in the proliferation projects is questionable, there is no doubt that the MJC was deeply involved in this enterprise.

Mr Abbas is optimistic about Pakistan’s progress in establishing a more robust nuclear security regime. He argues that the nuclear safeguards have improved with help from Western nations and the nuclear-decision making processes are being “streamlined”. He goes out on a limb to say that “direct transfer of nuclear weapons from Pakistan to Saudi Arabia is extremely unlikely”. He also claims that barring a regional conflict scenario, it is unlikely that terrorists will get hold of Pakistan’s nuclear security infrastructure.

Finally, the book manages to illustrate why achieving zero proliferation is nearly impossible. The ease with which Mr Khan and his network were able to first secure and then proliferate nuclear weapons shows why we need to think about solutions that go beyond non-proliferation. Perhaps, it is time to think along the lines of a global no-first-use convention to make the world a safer place — an idea that former prime minister Manmohan Singh spoke about in 2014.

Pakistan’s Nuclear Bomb is a tantalising yet rewarding read. Perhaps most instructive is well-known scholar Ayesha Siddiqa’s blurb: “Hassan Abbas presents one of the best defences of Pakistan’s military as he lays out details of A Q Khan’s personal network”.


The reviewer heads the geostrategy programme at Takshashila Institution


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