Hitting Paydirt with Feroz Khan’s ‘Eating Grass: The Making of the Pakistani Bomb’ – Part I

When I first heard about Feroz Khan’s Eating Grass: The Making of the Pakistani Bomb this autumn, I immediately put it on pre-order for two reasonsOne was fairly straightforward. As I write, there hangs over Western policy discourse a certain ambivalence about the importance of nuclear weapons. On the one hand, with the Cold War long over, there’s a certain complacency that the real risk of nuclear war is over, and that the tensions of the 1950s and early 1960s, and the early 1980s especially, are long over. Nuclear war couldn’t really happen, it seems from our current vantage point. Yet as anxieties about Iran’s nuclear weapons program, and the risk of further proliferation of Pakistani nuclear weapons underscore, we actually live in what Paul Bracken calls a ‘second nuclear age’, less symmetrical and more decentralized than the Cold War one that much of our existing scholarship focuses on. Still, since the stakes surrounding nuclear weapons and their security are so high, it bears understanding how new nuclear states like India, Pakistan, North Korea – and perhaps Iran, too – have obtained weapons in spite of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, what motivated them ideologically and/or strategically to do so, and how the great powers of the day can and should (or should not) engage with new nuclear states in this new world of rules. And that goal itself behooves reading a fair amount of history, and understanding the strategic culture of various countries.

Yet there was also a more obscure reason for my wanting to check out the book. In spite of the wave of fine works on international history that one sees coming out these days, and the dissertations that one hears about at conferences, the subject of Pakistan doesn’t often come up in these conversations. There’s a practical reason for that, of course: most would consider Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan off-limits in near all cases for all researchers, and even when cities like Islamabad, Lahore, or Karachi are navigable and safe for foreign (especially American) researchers, Pakistan hasn’t opened its contemporary archives in the same way that countries like Algeria, Serbia (covering Yugoslavia), Russia (for the USSR), China (albeit only up to around 1960 for foreign policy matters), or India (but not for the Indira Gandhi papers) have. Even for those with an impeccable knowledge of Urdu, Punjabi, Sindhi, Persian or other languages, what to do, then, besides hustle for interviews?

The King Faisal Mosque in Islamabad: built during the Cold War, yet just one example (Saudi-Pakistani relations) of how much in Pakistan’s history breaks binary understandings of how the world worked in those days

Yet beyond these simple logistical concerns there is, I would suggest, a second reason why you don’t see so much on Pakistan in our recent historiography: in many ways, the country’s history doesn’t fit our conventional story of what ‘decolonization’ or the Third World was all about. If one can ever call what happened in much of Asia and Africa uncomplicated, then the stories of countries like Ghana (formerly the Gold Coast), Tunisia, or Cambodia seem to semi-neatly fit a story of mostly European empires disengaging from their former colonial territories, with sovereign nation-states embedded in the UN world system taking their place. Yet in the case of Pakistan, ‘decolonization’ was actually simultaneous with the creation of the state itself, and not just in the form of a nation-state over where the old imperial borders had been, too; there was Partition, both the well-known sort in Bengal and Punjab, as well as a non-Partition in the Pashtun frontier and tribal areas, as well.

More than that, what resulted from Partition was less a nation-state than, well, a state about whose identities Pakistanis to this day seem to struggle: a secular state for South Asian Muslims, an ‘Islamic state’, some combination of these two with a primordial history dating back to the Indus Valley civilization, or perhaps something else entirely. Karachi and, later, Islamabad, may have been no friend of imperialism  or Israel in the abstract, but between a military alliance with the United States for much of the 1950s and early 1960s and another conflict over self-determination right on its doorstep (some would argue inside its doorstep) with India over Kashmir, for much of its early history Pakistan was on a very different course than the tendentious, self-determination-obsessed and anti-Zionist crusade that so many Third World dictatorships went on.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg: even as scholars like Giuliano Garavini tell us more about the fate of the Third World, UNCTAD, and calls for a New International Economic Order during the 1970s, it seems likely to this researcher that the consolidation of Pakistan’s ‘Military Inc.’ and shift to neoliberal policies under Zia ul-Haq and Mahbub ul-Haq might represent a story different from this one. Given all of these disjunctures, I’m always interested in reading intelligent works on Pakistani history, preferably by insiders, that make use of novel sources, to help us understand where this important country is coming from in history. All the better if the author can situate that Pakistani story into an international context to help us understand what makes Pakistan unique, or how the specific international context that Pakistan was born into shaped the country’s course.

Eating Grass, written by a former Pakistani general and nuclear security and strategy policy planner on the basis of dozens of interviews, largely fulfilled both of these hopes – nuclear history and international history – feeling as it did like a mix of a history of Pakistan and another version of national nuclear histories like John Wilson Lewis’ and Xue Litai’s China Builds the Bomb and David Holloway’s Stalin and the Bomb. As Khan notes in the introduction, prior to his work the literature on the Pakistani bomb program was patchy: clouded on the Pakistani side by hagiographies of the program itself (which, as a largely indigenous effort and a security blanket vis-à-vis India, remains a major source of pride for many) or arguably the key figure in it all, Abdul Qadeer Khan (AQ Khan), whose Engineering Research Laboratories (later Khan Research Laboratories) played a crucial role in the development of the bomb. Relying on a mix of secondary sources, but above all interviews with former scientists and military personnel, Khan interweaves the story of the bomb program – the ‘failure’ (if this is the right word) of Ayub Khan to push hard for a bomb, the revolution in Pakistan’s relationship with the atom under Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto from 1971-1977, the labyrinthine relationship with the United States and its enforcement of export bans, and, especially after 1974, the race to develop a bomb to compete against the existential rival India. (Since the history of Pakistan-as international history interests me more than the nuclear history per se, in this review essay I’ll focus more on the former than the latter for the sake of brevity.)

Pakistani military officials and scientists in Balochistan, near the site of the country’s first successful detonation of a nuclear weapon in 1998

As Part I of Eating Grass makes clear, it was in large part due to the Cold War context that Pakistan – a ‘moth-eaten’ poor country bereft of many of the scientific research institutes and expertise of the former British Raj that were partitioned into India – was set on a nuclear trajectory at all in the first place. At the same time that the United States began to develop an anti-Soviet military alliance with Karachi from 1953 onward, it also partnered with Pakistan, under the Atoms for Peace program, to build the first nuclear reactors ever in the country. This coincided with tentative and ad hoc Pakistani-led steps to improve the state of nuclear expertise in the country, which was almost non-existent at the time and centered heavily around those few Pakistani expatriates who had studied at primarily British institutions in the 1940s and 1950s.

Yet even though the chair of the newly-created Pakistani Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC), Nazir Ahmad, would succeed in sending hundreds of young Pakistanis abroad to US research institutions like Argonne, outside of Chicago, within the country his tenure throughout the late 1950s was largely viewed as a failure: US regulations and Pakistan’s lack of cash only allowed Karachi to secure a small ‘swimming pool’-type reactor, rather than a more advanced heavy water reactor that could generate power and allow for more advanced research. US officials were reluctant, however: the byproducts from heavy water reactors could be used for military applications, and while Canada was willing to sell one, the price tag of $7 million was too much for PAEC to afford. In spite of the ostensible partnership between Washington and Karachi, then, there was already more than a touch of bitterness to the relationship: Atoms for Peace had offered heavy water reactors to India, but saw in Pakistan the threat of proliferation.

These developments in the late 1950s intersected with changes in Pakistan’s leadership and its strategic outlook on its place in the region and the world. After a 1955 visit to India, Soviet leadership was beginning to develop a close relationship with India and recognized Kashmir as belonging to New Delhi, and yet because of the dominance of military issues in its relationship with the United States (and the ensuing backlash from Third World nationalists like Nasser at American bases in Pakistan), leaders like Prime Minister Muhammad Ali Bogra understood that their country needed another external balancing force, a role that France took on briefly in the 1950s but which a relationship with Beijing increasingly filled after diplomacy between Zhou Enlai and Bogra following the Bandung Conference in 1955.

Even after Ayub Khan and the Pakistani military seized power from the civilian government in 1958 this balancing act continued and became more charged. On one level, Ayub’s strategy was simple: in a two-camp world, it was important for Pakistan to take advantage of the global security architecture and rely on American aid to help strengthen the state. Yet by the late 1950s, both the international dynamic and the personalities in Pakistani politics were changing. In particular, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto – then a policy advisor to Ayub, later to become the Prime Minister – was articulating a vision for the country that does not fit easily into our usual paradigms about the Third World or the Cold War. More inclined towards socialism and the idea of Pakistan as a leading Islamic country than permanent alliance with Washington, Bhutto increasingly advocated that Pakistan adopt an idiosyncratic stance in its foreign policy towards Moscow and Beijing. After the U-2 incident in May 1960, for example, Ayub visited Moscow to assure Soviet leadership that ‘there was no military life left in the pacts [with the United States], and Pakistan would never serve as an instrument of U.S. policy.’ At the same time, Ayub, acting upon Bhutto’s advice, was changing the nature of Sino-Pak and Indo-Pak relations, too: Beijing had constructed a precarious but strategically vital connector road between Xinjiang and Tibet that ran through Aksai Chin, a disputed area between India and China. At the United Nations in 1960, Bhutto, acting as Pakistan’s representative, abstained on a vote on PRC membership in the organization, and obganiated on the Indian position in Kashmir, even while Ayub and the actual Foreign Minister of Pakistan refrained from making concrete policy shifts.

Not for the faint of heart: China’s Tibet-Xinjiang connector road is one of the highest-altitude highways in the world, and runs through contested territory

This more ambiguous course for Pakistani foreign policy, combined with domestic shifts inside America, led to profound shifts in the relationship between the two countries by 1962-1965. After discussions had begun in May 1962 to demarcate the Sino-Pak border, war broke out in October of that same month (at the same time as the Cuban Missile Crisis) between India and China. The United States responded by providing Nehru with military aid, at the same time pleading Ayub to make ‘a positive gesture of sympathy and restraint’ with regards to New Delhi. Even though military leadership argued that now was the time for decisive military action against India, Ayub withheld, believing, it seems, that the best route for the country was to use the détente with Moscow as a window to seek a US-negotiated resolution over the Kashmir issue. ‘From Ayub’s standpoint’, writes Feroz Khan, ‘his agreement not to intervene in Kashmir should have been rewarded with a serious negotiation leading to the settlement of the issue. Many in the U.S. government also thought the environment was propitious to settle the Kashmir dispute.’ And throughout 1963, US and British diplomatic teams led by Averell Harriman and Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations Duncan Sandys attempted to broker such a deal.

Yet the window was rapidly closing on such a future for the region: Ayub replaced his Foreign Minister, Mohammad Ali Bogra, with Bhutto in June of 1963, not long after the young rising star had helped negotiate a final agreement over the Sino-Pak border. When JFK was assassinated in 1963, sustained American attention to what were then called ‘India-Pakistan affairs’ declined. When war did take place between Pakistan and India in 1965, the United States failed, from Islamabad’s point of view, to intervene according to the terms of CENTO or SEATO. Washington, moreover, deliberately allowed Moscow to broker the peace deal between Delhi and Islamabad, having tired of attempting to broker issues between the two fractious South Asian countries. Yet neither was China particularly helpful: during a secret meeting between Ayub and Zhou, the Chinese advocated a ‘people’s war’ and argued that they must ‘keep fighting even if you have to withdraw to the hills’ – a dark piece of advice given what we know today about the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Tribal Areas, and NWFP as well as Islamist insurgencies in Kashmir. More practical military aid, however, let alone the opening of a second Chinese military front against India, was not forthcoming.

These changes created space for new thinking about Pakistan and nuclear weapons, especially on the part of Bhutto. During the 1960s, the PAEC, under the leadership of Ishrat Hussain Usmani, was no slouch: it managed, with additional funding, to secure the construction of a Canadian-style reactor near Karachi. It continued to send hundreds of young Pakistanis abroad to the United States for training, and constructed research centers in Lahore and Dhaka (then part of East Pakistan). Perhaps most impressively, it also secured the construction of a major research campus, the Pakistan Institute of Nuclear Science and Technology (PINSTECH), near Islamabad, a gorgeous modernist neo-Mughal complex designed by the American architect Edward Durrell. Yet concrete steps towards weaponization – seen as more important following China’s nuclear test in 1964 and the threat of an Indian response to that test – were not yet forthcoming.

Edward Durrell's PINSTECH, near Islamabad

Edward Durrell’s PINSTECH, near Islamabad

A split in security thinking developed between figures like Ayub and young guns like Bhutto. The former group, which Khan dubs the ‘nuclear cautionists’, emphasized that Pakistan still financially relied on being embedded in international networks like the IMF, and its alliance with the United States, to meet many of its financial and security needs. Given the precarious state of power generation and food in Pakistan, the promise of nuclear power was great. Still, Ayub argued in 1967, ‘nuclear weapons and territorial nationalism are incompatible’, a belief that led him to simply not make a decision on a crash program throughout the late 1960s. The latter group, which Khan dubs ‘nuclear enthusiasts’, looked to the events of 1962-1965 as proof that Pakistan had to develop a bomb for national survival. The alliance with the United States, they argued, had simply not worked in order to guarantee the country’s security. ‘Where is the security?’, pleaded Bhutto. ‘We were supposed to be a second Japan. I do not see where this second Japan is.’ As the soon-to-be-exiled Bhutto would famously quip in a 1965 interviw with The Guardian later in the decade,

if India acquires nuclear status, Pakistan will have to follow suit even if it entails eating grass.

The bomb was indispensable, in other words: even worth years of no resolution to the poverty and malnourishment that gripped Pakistan during these years. When Bhutto would come to power, as he would following the disastrous 1971 Indo-Pakistani War, these views on nuclear weapons would have profound implications for his country and the region. Feroz Khan’s take on this new tack in Pakistani politics and strategy, too, merits discussion. More on that in the next part of this review, to come soon.

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One thought on “Hitting Paydirt with Feroz Khan’s ‘Eating Grass: The Making of the Pakistani Bomb’ – Part I

  1. Pingback: New Book: Eating Grass: The Making of the Pakistani Bomb

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