The passions surrounding Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program date back to at least October 1965, when the-then foreign minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto declared: “Pakistan will fight, fight for a thousand years. If India builds the atom bomb … Pakistan will eat grass or leaves, even go hungry, but we will get one of our own. We have no other choice!”
In Eating Grass: the Making of the Pakistani Bomb, former Pakistan Army brigadier Feroz H. Khan wants to tell the story of Pakistan’s bomb as a legitimate undertaking, which the world should now recognize as such. He is no ordinary author; as a onetime director of Pakistan’s apex nuclear establishment, the Directorate of Arms Control and Disarmament at the Strategic Planning Division, Khan is an acknowledged insider. Khan favors the theory that states nuclearize not so much on the basis of realism—which can actually deter acquisition of nuclear weapons—but on account of a “strategic culture which stands as an important intervening variable between changes in the material cases of power and state behavior.”
Khan remains steadfastly wedded to references that don’t always present Pakistan as a sane nation: “Such global prominence [through nuclearization] in Pakistani thought harkened back to past civilizational glory, to the time when the Mughal Empire shared the global stage with the Safavids and the Ottomans. Additionally, for Pakistan, a country conflicted over whether it is a secular or theological Muslim state, nuclear weapons were a symbol of cohesion—they became one of the few issues about which there was national consensus.”
But the cohesion-consensus fib no longer stands up. The truth is that a revisionist state has gone haywire and said goodbye to realism too after going nuclear. Given Pakistan’s martial persona, its ideological misrepresentation of jihad, and dominance of the state by a coup-making military, security is defined in Pakistan in military terms. Today, if one thinks security should emanate from a buoyant economy flourishing on trade openings with states that nationalism deems enemies, numberless nonstate actors are willing to use terror to cow one down and make one love the state-bankrupting bomb.
Who in Pakistan erects the emotional structure of “national humiliation” propelling these suicidal national-security ideas even as “failed states” like North Korea brandish their bombs to scare the world? How many lessons were learned from nuclear China that finally derived its real global clout not from the bomb but its economy? Had China aped revisionist Pakistan, nuclear war would have engulfed the world and destroyed the Chinese nation. Ideology and nationalism make Pakistan ignore its low-IQ military leaders who flourish only by isolating the country internationally and unleashing nonstate actors on civilian leaders. No one can ever tell a Pakistani jingo that the nuclear example of India is less relevant to him than that of North Korea, a collapsed state whose bombs are rotting in its attic.
The quest for nukes started in 1954 with Dr. Rafi Chaudhry in the high-tension physics laboratory of Government College, Lahore. (Years later when Gen. Zia-ul-Haq met Chaudhry, “he raised his hand and saluted Chaudhry for his contributions to Pakistan’s nuclear development,” Khan writes.) After that, Cambridge-educated Dr. Abdus Salam, recipient of the Nobel Prize for physics in 1979, helped by directing more British-trained nuclear manpower to the project, and bureaucrat I. H. Usmani assisted by attracting “peaceful” nuclear technology from Canada. In keeping with Bhutto’s promise, no expense was spared: the Pakistan Institute of Nuclear Science and Technology (PINSTECH) emerged as an architectural masterpiece; and the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) was given $350 million in 1975 for its initiatives, including a uranium enrichment plant.
The Muslim mind conquered science and equated the bomb with, to borrow from the Quran, the “horses that had to be kept ready.”
Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood, a Ph.D. in science and nuclear engineering from the University of Manchester, had worked in the U.K.’s Atomic Energy Authority on nuclear reactors and then at the Risley Design Centre, where his job exposed him to design work for nuclear power and reprocessing plants and enrichment facilities. Back home, Mahmood’s résumé helped him get involved with Pakistan’s nuclear program in 1963 and with its enrichment program nine years later.
But despite his worldly exposure, religious humbug dogged Mahmood. During the 1970s, he read a paper to General Zia claiming he could produce electricity for the entire country from a single jinn—a supernatural, fire-born entity mentioned in the Quran. He told Khan, the author, about the provenance of his innovative approach to enriching uranium: “I got the idea from Allah.” Later, Mahmood protested against Pakistan’s perceived softening to the signing of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and retired from the nuclear establishment in 1999.
But the interface between Pakistani scientists and terrorism had begun in the 1990s, and Mahmood was among its pioneers. In 2001, Mahmood—wedded as he was to the idea of “heavenly horses” and aspiration for Armageddon—and a fellow scientist, Chaudhry Abdul Majid, even traveled to Afghanistan to meet with Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden.
Husain Haqqani, former Pakistani ambassador to the U.S., explains the time well in his new book, Magnificent Delusions: Pakistan, the United States, and an Epic History of Misunderstanding: “Pakistan was the only country with a Taliban embassy, although Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates had also recognized their regime. At one point the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad estimated that 10 to 20 percent of Taliban soldiers were Pakistani. U.S. diplomats acknowledged that the presence of Pakistani volunteers in Afghanistan solidifies Pakistan-Taliban relations … Pakistanis were fighting alongside Muslim extremists battling for autonomy in Mindanao, the Philippines, and Pakistanis had been among Islamists fighting in Chechnya. Arab governments in Egypt, Algeria, and Jordan also identified their foes among those living in Pakistan since the anti-Soviet Afghan jihad.”
Mahmood—like the rest in this great covert battlefield organized by nuclearized Pakistan, now that it felt secure—believed he was divinely inspired. Like several generals he worked with, Mahmood was temperamentally unstable. Author Khan attributes this to Mahmood’s “rebellious streak” that made him present his “viewpoints with force and passion,” hiding behind ideology when challenged by his superiors. The bomb had become part of the national catechism, mixing patriotism with faith, and everyone had to bow before it as if to a phallic god. The maunderings of retired generals on TV talk shows today reek of fascism, which is apparent in Mahmood’s career as well. Eating Grass also notes incompetence growing out of this false sense of ideological authority:
“Mahmood was one of the causes of the poor working environment in [enrichment] Project 706. Though personally skilled and knowledgeable, his poor managerial skills caused precious hours to be wasted on conferences and petty administrative tasks, leaving little time for substantial work. In addition, [Mahmood’s] hiring practices came under scrutiny. For example, he insisted on interviewing and selecting new employees on his own and did not include many of his subordinates in the hiring process. Many employees viewed this as nepotism, making the working environment even less pleasant.”
Enter the ‘Father of the Bomb’
Mahmood handed over charge of the Kahuta Research Laboratory for enrichment to another absolutist personality in July 1976, Dr. A. Q. Khan, who began transforming the nuclear program into his personal fiefdom. After his B.Sc. from Karachi University, Khan traveled to Europe and earned an M.S. from the Technological University of Delft, Holland, and a Ph.D. in copper metallurgy from Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium. Thereafter, as an employee at the URENCO nuclear plant in Almelo, Netherlands, he had gained crucial knowledge of centrifuge-based enrichment operations before returning to join Pakistan’s enrichment project.
Then nationalism cloaking a deep personal urge to dominate overcame all sense of ethic. Overarching destiny was knocking on Khan’s door. The biggest international nuclear theft took place through Khan, making him the “father of the bomb” in Pakistan while he accumulated personal wealth hand over fist. Khan soon clashed with the other Khan: PAEC chairman Munir Ahmad Khan, who ran the entire nuclear establishment. Munir Ahmad Khan had done a stint at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and—in total negation of the jihadist-commando action that Mahmood favored and the venality of A. Q.—was inclined to be less “mission-driven” and more discreet.
Everyone had to bow before the bomb as if to a phallic god.
The “secular” bomb-nationalism of Munir Ahmad Khan soon led to rumors about him being an Ahmadi—a community bestowed the label of apostasy by a deathwish-driven nation. General Zia, who had just placed further stringent disabilities on the Ahmadi community, succumbed and made A. Q. independent of Munir Ahmad Khan, giving him autonomous charge of KRL. Munir Ahmad Khan, whom intelligence agencies reported to General Zia as being a “normal” Muslim and not an apostate, was taken off the bomb project illustrating just how a Muslim state more attuned to medieval witch-hunting than rationality wobbles when handling science.
What did Mahmood think of A. Q., who had accused him of procuring substandard materials and thus setting back the project? Eating Grass offers us this nugget. “Even after 30 years, Mahmood held exceptionally strong feelings about those times, demonstrated by his lasting opinion of A. Q. Khan: A. Q. Khan was mentally sick. His mental sickness was such that he wanted everything in his possession, in his control, and he wanted that ‘it should be known that I am the super-genius, I am everybody.’”
The book makes the following assessment about the eventual nuclear-proliferation activities of A. Q.: “The Pakistani government overlooked Khan’s activities because it believed the benefit he provided outweighed the cost of corruption. A. Q. Khan was a go-getter, a people pleaser, a hero. He was a master at kickbacks and bribes which kept scrutiny away from his activities—at least temporarily. Also, many of those who observed his bureaucratic malpractices were themselves beneficiaries of the system.” It goes on to tell us about the proliferation triggered by A. Q. for personal gains—selling blueprints and centrifuges to North Korea, Iran, and Libya—until he was finally caught in the act and had to be gagged and confined by the Army.
The most damning passage in the book relates to A. Q. Khan writing to the Sri Lankan Army chief asking for help in retrieving money owed to him by a Sri Lankan national. Khan offered the general a carrot ($300,000, if he helped), and a stick. Khan’s letter, on official government stationery that presented him as a federal minister, stated that in case the Army chief did not oblige, Khan would get in touch with Velupillai Prabhakaran, leader of the terrorist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, to get the job done. If this wasn’t a bluff, it was proof that A. Q. had his contacts within the terrorist underworld of the region and could have been facilitated in this by the Pakistani establishment.
In a comprehensive analysis of A. Q. Khan as a person, 2007’s Deception: Pakistan, the United States, and the Secret Trade in Nuclear Weapons by Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark states: “Khan continued to collect awards and honors, many of them invented at his request. He became addicted to it. Between 1984 and 1992, the KRL chief scored 11 gold medals from organizations as diverse the Lions Club of Gujrat, the Institute of Metallurgy, and the Citizens of Rawalpindi. He awarded himself the ‘Man of the Nation’ medal given by the Pakistan Institute of National Affairs in Lahore, and even wangled a recommendation out of the Abbasi Shaheed Public Hospital in Karachi, which, after receiving an envelope stuffed with cash, had a gold medal cast glorifying Dr. Khan.”
The state could not carry the burden of A. Q. Khan’s greatness much longer and succumbed to global pressures in 2004. It forced Khan to confess to his evil enterprise of proliferation, and arm-twisted the jinn-taming jihadist Mahmood to take lie-detector tests from an FBI team. (Mahmood rendered these ineffective by cleverly feigning fits of unconsciousness.) The-then ruling general who made Pakistan’s nuclear heroes suffer such humiliation, Pervez Musharraf, is currently facing charges of treason and may succumb to “divine justice” for having violated the sanctity of the bomb by maltreating its bearded uncle and clean-shaven father.
Khan was not the “father of the bomb.” In fact, he had to actually gatecrash the PAEC nuclear blasts in Chaghai in 1998, according to Eating Grass. In the post-2004 period, the state had to worry about the security of the once-great scientist: he could be killed by rascally America or he could be kidnapped by Al Qaeda, who would naturally like him to resume where Mahmood had left off. His security came from the obvious quarter.
Clearly, the Pakistani bomb was doomed to be sired by a gang of scientists suffering from severe personality disorders. And one can extend that diagnosis to the state itself as it prepares today to bend to the will of the Taliban-Al Qaeda combine while carrying the payload of more than a hundred nuclear bombs in its bowels.
Tilt To Tehran
General Zia, presiding over Pakistan, was aligned with Saudi Arabia and Gulf Arabs against Iran that threatened them with exportable revolution. His deputy, Gen. Aslam Beg, was ideologically aligned with Iran and saw Arabs as allies of hegemonic America. So General Beg favored Dr. Khan’s proliferationist contacts with Tehran.
A dossier released by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies in 2007, as a “chronology of Dr. A. Q. Khan’s proliferation,” indicates that he had visited Iran’s nuclear reactor at Bushehr in 1986. Iran approached Khan’s nuclear network to close a $3-million deal for centrifuge technology. (The IISS dossier distinguishes between the “Pakistan government” (meaning General Zia) and the Khan network.) Iran later disclosed to the IAEA details of the receipt of centrifuges, via Dubai in 1987, from Khan.
A. Q. Khan had to actually gatecrash the PAEC’s 1998 nuclear tests in Chaghai.
As General Beg embraced anti-imperialism, General Zia was nursing his own bruises from the Arab-Iran rivalry in the region. Under Saudi tutelage he had made the mistake of clamping zakat (Islamic poor-due) on Pakistan’s Shia, whose jurisprudence forbade them from paying it to the state. Then the Gulf Arabs set up the Gulf Cooperation Council with Saudi Arabia as its patron, and asked General Zia to provide it with covert military teeth. When he protested neutrality between Iran and the Arabs, he was actually threatened with the repatriation of hundreds of thousands of Pakistani workers employed by GCC states.
The year 1987 was also eventful for another reason. A. Q. Khan decided in an interview given to Indian journalist Kuldip Nayar—who was escorted by Pakistani journalist Mushahid Hussain—to “showcase” his bomb by admitting that Pakistan had now moved to the point that it could actually nuke India. In his book Beyond the Lines: an Autobiography, Nayar tells the story thus: “I thought I would provoke him. Egoist that he was, he might fall for the bait. And he did. I concocted a story and told him that when I was coming to Pakistan, I ran into Dr. Homi Sethna, father of India’s nuclear bomb, who asked me why I was wasting my time because Pakistan had neither the men nor the material to make such a weapon. Khan exploded and boasted that Pakistan had made the bomb, adding the threat, ‘If you ever drive us to the wall, as you did in East Pakistan, we will use the bomb.’”
After the Nayar article appeared, General Zia went ballistic and took action that may have had the effect of sabotaging General Beg’s Iran project. Author Khan notes that, “Islamabad’s reaction to the publication of the interview was swift and severe.”
A. Q. Khan was first called to explain himself to the Senate Chairman, Ghulam Ishaq Khan; next he was directed to report to Gen. K. M. Arif, vice chief of Army staff, who supposedly grilled him in his office where Khan claimed that he had been tricked by Hussain into meeting with the Indian journalist. Finally, he was summoned to the President’s House. Lt. Gen. Syed Rifaqat Ali, who was chief of staff to General Zia, narrated to the author how the wrath of Zia fell on Khan. After a normally polite Zia had finished with A. Q., the latter was seen leaving “trembling and perspiring.” The author adds: “Soon afterward, Zia directed the bomb-designing project to be taken away from Khan and returned to the dedicated team in [PAEC].” The government wasn’t done with Hussain either. It deprived his newspaper, Muslim, of all state advertisements and put it out of business by isolating it. But the damage had been done.
General Zia’s tough actions stemmed from three worries. First, the ramifications of the interview on U.S.-Pakistan relations and the new $4.2-billion economic and military aid package being stringently scrutinized by a cheese-paring U.S. Congress as the Cold War subsided. Second, he worried about India’s reactions and the implications of this kind of “signaling by a top scientist.” (Zia had toned down the nuclear rhetoric and was assiduously damage-controlling a recent downturn in relations with the big neighbor.) And third, the knock received by his nuclear-security system as it lay ravaged by a nosy Indian journalist.
General Zia was killed in an air crash in August 1988 amid rumors that General Beg had masterminded it, allegedly for fear of being “discovered” selling nuclear secrets to Iran. After succeeding Zia as Army chief, General Beg tried selling his Iran project to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who was equally averse to the idea because of his own closeness to the Arabs.
Ideology and hypernationalism continued to draw Pakistani scientists to accused terrorists. A. Q. Khan has been no exception. In Osama’s Revenge: the Next 9/11, Paul L. Williams writes that Khan started appearing at the rallies of Hafiz Saeed’s Lashkar-e-Taiba. Saeed, a graduate of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdul Aziz University, now heads the proscribed Jamat-ud-Dawah and is accused of masterminding the 2008 Mumbai attacks. Williams writes: “Dr. A. Q. Khan attended Lashkar-e-Taiba gatherings accompanied by other nuclear scientists of his establishment, including Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood who enriched uranium at Khushab.”
It is not just Mahmood and Khan who chose to bend their knees to the likes of Saeed for self-empowerment; many retired military officers and politicians also do this to make an impression on whoever is ruling Pakistan—and to deter him or her from normalizing relations with India, a nationalism-snubbing move that would shift the national-security paradigm from the military to an economic one. Until such a shift happens, Pakistan will continue eating grass—and the snakes that slither in it.
From our Dec. 7, 2013, issue.