Bhutto’s Third World? Review of Feroz Khan’s ‘Eating Grass: The Making of the Pakistani Bomb’ – Part II

As I mentioned in Part One of my review of Feroz Khan’s recent Eating Grass: The Making of the Pakistani Bomb, one of the delights of the book is how it provides not just a dense technical and institutional history of the places and personalities – PAEC, Khan Research Laboratories, Bhutto, Zia, A.Q. Khan – that went into the construction of the Pakistani nuclear bomb, but also a compelling and in-depth history of Pakistan itself, or at least how its leaders and élites have thought about security throughout the course of their rivalry with India, the Cold War, the emergence of China onto the world stage, and more. More specifically, what’s interesting for me, as someone who dips his feet into international history circles quite often, is the forceful case that the book makes for the centrality of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in Pakistani history, and, perhaps, the implicit case it makes for Pakistan as an outlier to our usual concepts of ‘the Third World’ as a semi-united phenomenon. (It wasn’t, of course, but I suppose what’s interesting here is how unique, or how different Pakistan was from what one might view as a united front of the NEIO, anti-Zionism, anti-apartheid, and an obsession with the UN’s General Assembly as the key forum for international politics.)

To understand the significance of Bhutto and the shifts in Pakistani nuclear thinking in the 1970s, Khan underscores, it is important to understand the debates that Bhutto and his circle emerged from victoriously. Following the debacle of the 1965 Indo-Pakistani War, as I highlighted at the end of the previous post, there were several good arguments for and against Islamabad pushing harder to obtain nuclear weapons after the end of that war. ‘Nuclear cautionists’ stressed the need for Pakistan to remain tethered into international financial, monetary, and development networks to continue to develop, and argued that conventional military supplies from the West could halt entirely if Pakistan began to develop a military nuclear program. Throw in a condescending attitude towards the capability of Indian scientists, and a belief that it would be better to accept slow improvements in civilian nuclear technology through Atoms for Peace, they argued, and there was little need to upset the country’s framework of foreign relations and its outside cash flow from donors all for another adventure, just years after the 1965 debacle.

Ayub Khan: failed nuclear modernizer or regional visionary avant la lettre?

Khan teases out Ayub’s thinking on these matters in more detail by looking both to his 1967 ‘political autobiography’ as well as his diaries from the time. On the one hand, Ayub comes across as someone interested in a non-aligned position for Pakistan (the country would join the Non-Aligned Movement in 1979, but by then, arguably, the idea of a serious Non-Aligned group had lost much of its lustre). He writes in Friends Not Masters, the political biography:

The big power rivalries, the diffusion of the focus of world power by the emergence of China, and the end of the U.S.-U.S.S.R. tussle for world supremacy, all are hard realities, but they need not be a source of weakness for small nations acting in concert. With a little farsightedness, it should be possible to create such as constellation of power, interlinked with one other . .  . ever since the Soviet Union and the United States have come closer to accepting the gospel of coexistence, the need for their wooing of smaller countries for support has receded.

The days of Pakistan simply being able to rely on John Foster Dulles and Richard Nixon-style anti-Communist support for Pakistan and its military were, in other words, over. Détente was granting ‘smaller countries’ more room for flexibility in their diplomacy, but there was no need for leaders of those countries to overreact and seek supreme security through the bomb. Later, in 1967, in his diaries, Ayub reflected on the possible proliferation of nuclear weapons:

Nuclear power has put a terrible power of destruction in the hands of mankind. Its military use might well cause utter ruination of human civilization. These weapons are today in the hands of a few countries. Efforts, which I do not think will succeed, are being made to prevent their spread. Time will come when their production might well become simpler and cheaper and even the small countries might have them. In that case the world will be a very, very dangerous place to live in . .  . because nuclear weapons and territorial nationalism are incompatible and deadly danger to the survival of the human race.

The point, as Feroz Khan emphasizes, for Ayub was not that nuclear technology itself was fearful or to be avoided. A product of the mid-20th century, Ayub remained grim-minded on topics like ‘the population bomb’ and food shortages. Somewhere in his quicksilver mind, it seems, nuclear technology could prove itself the tool that impoverished, former colonial countries needed to avert impending disaster. ‘We are too poor not to afford nuclear technology,’ Ayub is reported to have said in a 1962 speech at the inauguration of the Atomic Energy Center in Dhaka in what was then East Pakistan. Yet just as a full-fledged nuclear exchange between large countries like the USA or USSR could lead to doom for the entire planet, wedding high-yield nuclear weapons to disputes over chunks of ‘indigenous’, ‘primitive’ territory also posed a fearful threat to mankind. Rather than ensuring the survival of small or, in the case of Pakistan, ‘thin’ (only about 150 miles from the Indian border to the frontier in many areas), nations, regional nuclear rivalries posed the threat of national suicide.

By 1969-1971, however – as Ayub handed over power to General Yahya Khan and Pakistan was dismembered in a violent series of nationalist Bengali uprisings, excessive and gruesome West Pakistani interventions, and then Indian interventions into Bangladesh – the strategic context had changed dramatically, and many of the arguments that Ayub and Co. had presented against nuclear advocates like Bhutto (who became President in 1971) now seemed quaint. Neither the United States (a CENTO partner of Pakistan’s) nor Pakistan’s ‘all-weather’ ally, China, had intervened in Islamabad’s favor during the 1971 war, and Bhutto repeatedly likened the treaty agreement ending the war to the Treaty of Versailles. A new grand strategy, one centered more around nuclear weapons but also around an eclectic series of relationships with states beyond just Washington, Moscow, and Beijing came more to the forefront, too.

On the nuclear front, Bhutto moved decisively: within a few months of assuming power, he called for a conference of Pakistan’s nuclear scientists in Multan, the third-largest city in Pakistan. Gathered under a tent at the residence of Nawab Sadiq Hussain Qureshi, the chief minister of Punjab, Bhutto spoke to some four hundred of the country’s nuclear scientists and engineers about Pakistan’s atomic future. Accounts of what precisely happened differ: according to Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood, then a young nuclear scientist fresh from studies in the United Kingdom, Bhutto explicitly mentioned the bomb, saying, ‘We are fighting a thousand year war with India, and we will make an atomic bomb even if we have to eat grass. So in how many years can you do it?’

At this, Mahmood recalls, ‘There was excitement; with some saying five years, some seven, some said ten. People were raising their hands. Someone was jumping. There was shouting, like in a fish market. Bhutto said, “OK, OK, five years.” Then someone shouted three years.’ Encouraged by the audience’s eagerness, the president candidly communicated the gravity of the decision, but also promised the assembled scientists and engineers his full support. “I shall provide you the resources and the facilities, so can you do it?” Others, like Dr. Ishfaq Ahmad, recall a more muted approach. Bhutto, he recalled

only indirectly referred to a nuclear weapon by hinting that he expected the scientists to meet the challenge ‘if something happens.’ By this, everyone attending understood him to mean, ‘If India explodes a nuclear device.’ In such an eventuality, Bhutto went on to say, ‘I  expect you to deliver. You’d better deliver.’

The reformation of Pakistani nuclear programs was on. Major institutional changes went underway at the Multan meeting itself. Bhutto dismissed Ishrat Hussain Usmani as the head of PAEC, replacing him with the more maverick Munir Ahmad Khan and directly subordinating PAEC to Bhutto’s office. Within a few short years, they would face acute challenges. If Usmani had believed that India, in response to China’s 1964 tests, would declare itself nuclear-capable but (as a state founded on Ghandian and Nehruvian principles), Delhi’s May 1974 tests shattered that hope. Worse, from the Pakistani perspective, the Non-Proliferation Treaty, signed into force in 1970, meant that the old American Atoms for Peace and Canadian supply chains that had built KANUPP were to close off. Combined, it seemed to many in Islamabad that – yet again – Pakistan was being made to pay for Delhi’s sins. How to build a crash nuclear program without any of the advantages of sharing that its competitors did?

Bhutto's World? Some of the key countries with which Zulfikar Ali Bhutto forged links with in the 1970s while also promoting the Pakistani nuclear weapons program

Bhutto’s World? Some of the key countries with which Zulfikar Ali Bhutto forged links with in the 1970s while also promoting the Pakistani nuclear weapons program

One of the answers had to do with diplomacy. At the same time that Bhutto was careful not to outrage Washington, Moscow, or Beijing: Bhutto offered Nixon the use of Gwadar as an American regional port, which Nixon refused. (Fifty years later, the port portends to become an oil refining and processing center for China.) At the same time, defying our usual categories for thinking about the Third World, Bhutto tried to be both socialist and Islamic at the same time: ‘party workers would wear Awami dress (Shalwar Kameez) and for all formal occasions, a new standard dress, Maoist-style tunic and trousers, leaving behind the traditional Sherwani and cap that Jinnah had adopted.’ Bhutto made a major trip to the Middle East in January 1972 – part of a reposition of Pakistan as a premier Islamic country – and in January 1973, met with Colonel Gaddafi in Paris, where the two agreed on a a deal of several hundred million dollars in Libyan assistance for the Pakistani nuclear program, Nigerien yellow cake, and (apocryphally) uranium from Chad in exchange for Pakistani training of Libyan nuclear scientists. The crowning achievement of this approach, however, was Bhutto’s chairing of the Islamic Summit Conference in Lahore in February 1974, a symbolic act that nonetheless allowed Bhutto to corral roughly half a billion dollars in financing for fuel cycle facilities from the Arab countries and Iran. Soon, with the help of returned Pakistani nuclear scientists and metallurgists from Europe, and unorthodox methods from the Pakistani foreign service, the cash raised from these networks would be used to obtain advanced European technology with which the enrichment process would proceed: more on this story in the next installment of this review.

So, to return to my original question, how does a better understanding of Pakistani history in the 1970s help us ask new questions about ‘the Third World’ or of how we write the international history of the period? Perhaps the most important lesson I take from Eating Grass, as well as other semi-related works I’ve been checking out in recent days (The Poverty Curtain by Mahbub ul-Haq, a  Pakistani economist under Ayub and, later, Zia ul-Haq) is the extent to which Third World actors, whether Bhutto or (slightly later) A.Q. Khan or Mahbub ul-Haq, were often able to pass through some of the ideological divides that at least older historians took for granted of the period. Although Islamabad would obtain core nuclear materials and technology from countries as distant as Libya and China, for example, it did so with a cadre of scientists whose training had largely been obtained in northern Europe – at Oxbridge for the older generation, and German and Dutch universities for slightly younger figures like Khan. The case of Pakistan suggests how, at least in the realm of nuclear knowledge, there were much less ‘two camps’ than nodes of expertise – Europe and, to a lesser extent here, China – that smaller states could latch on to during the Cold War.

Perhaps more intriguingly as I read Mahbub’s works, I wonder about the extent to which the same is true of economic thinking. Someone like ul-Haq, for example went to the United Kingdom and the United States for his education in economics before returning to his home country to chair the Pakistan Planning Commission under Ayub, before working in the World Bank during the 1970s, before again returning to Pakistan as Minister of Finance under Zia, seeking to further human development in Pakistan in a radically changed environment from the one he had originally worked in. Before advising the more neo-liberally-inclined ul-Haq government, however, in The Poverty Curtain (published in 1976) ul-Haq spends a fair amount of time gushing over Yugoslav and Chinese economic policies. One wonders what a story of such transnational economists (a group biography, say, ul-Haq, Michal Kalecki, and someone else who spent time between international institutions and socialist and/or non-First World economies) would tell us about the twentieth century. There’s something more to file away in the ‘books to write’ file … in any event, look for more on Eating Grass soon, as well as a more compressed book review to appear in print in the next few weeks.


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