Review of Feroz Khan’s ‘Eating Grass: The Making of the Pakistani Bomb’ – Part III

As I sit down to write, it’s a typical Sunday morning here in Oxford: fog hangs over the Magdalen College School’s cricket fields, I’ve just topped up a mug of English Breakfast tea with a splash of milk, and I’ve made some indeterminate commitment to head over to the gym later this morning. Life these days is comfortably, if also repetitively, predictable: wake up early, breakfast with friends, sit down for several hours to make corrections and edits on D.Phil. chapters, spend the afternoon implementing said corrections, and erratically make orders to the Bodleian Library to find *the* piece of critical literature that will give me the insight to fill in some of the argumentative holes in the dissertation. There’s only a few more weeks of life like this before things become more active and adventurous again – travels to Cambridge, Newcastle, and Morocco – but in the meantime it’s activities like this blog, and the small intellectual outlet it accords, that help keep me sane.

Indeed, one of the rewards of blogging is the way it’s sometimes allowed me to land in a more personal exchange with the people whose books or ideas I’m reviewing. After publishing the first two parts of a long review essay on Feroz Khan’s Eating Grass: The Making of the Pakistani Bomb, Khan got in touch with me to see if I had any more questions about the book, or if there was anything he could clarify to me about the way he had conceived the project. I was about to put up this third part to the review up online at the time, but I thought it would be valuable to get Feroz’ added commentary before doing so: both for the education of your humble narrator, but also to clarify some of what I still didn’t understand even after reading through the book several times. So, after a helpful and cheerful conversation – who wouldn’t be cheerful living in Monterey? – it’s time to pick up where I left off to summarize, and think about, the nuclear trajectory of Pakistan in the 1980s and 1990s.

Geographic schizophrenia for Tim: chatting with Pakistani authors (Feroz Khan) who have set up shop back in idyllic California (glorious Monterey pictured above)

Where I left off, General Zia ul-Haq had overthrown Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the Prime Minister of Pakistan and the man who, probably more than anyone else, had played a crucial role in the making of a nuclear Pakistan. Under Bhutto, Pakistani policy entrepreneurs like S.A. Butt had built a clandestine procurement network for uranium enrichment technology, at the same time that European-trained engineers like A.Q. Khan had returned to Pakistan to build up the centrifuge program. Even nearly a decade after the shock of defeat in the 1971 War, paranoia and resentment persisted toward resentment persisted high into the ranks of the Pakistani military and, to some extent, Pakistani society, too. As Feroz Khan emphasized in our conversation, by the 1970s (the time of a fully-grown second generation of Indians and Pakistanis in South Asia) what came to matter was less the historical record and more the myths about the major events of the 20th century: Partition, 1965, 1971. People grew up with myths taken from their grandmother’s lap, right or wrong.

Within Pakistan, at the same time that the emergence of Pakistan Studies curricula emphasized the place of the modern Pakistani state within longer-term South Asian or Mughal history, there echoed the (reported) words of Indira Gandhi following the Indian invasion of East Pakistan: ‘Today I have wiped away the ignominy of 1,000 years from the good face of India’, seen by some as a reference to the decline of Hindu empires in Asia centuries earlier. South Asian wars and disputes, rather than being discrete events that demanded technocratic diplomacy, became plugged in post facto into a ‘clash of civilizations’ narrative. That narrative had been arguably what fueled New Delhi’s ambitions to test a nuclear weapon in 1973, what propelled Bhutto so fanatically to build a Pakistani bomb, and most likely was on Zia’s mind, too, as he had to deal simultaneously with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the perceived Indian threat, and the rise of an unpredictable revolutionary regime to Pakistan’s west, in Iran. On top of that, Israel’s 1981 bombing of the Osirak reactor stoked Islamabad’s fears that the United States, Israel, or India would somehow seek to dismantle and destroy Pakistan’s existing nuclear sites.

In order to make progress, Zia faced several technical and institutional challenges. Since Khan and Butt were already underway running around Germany and Switzerland to secure the equipment necessary for uranium enrichment – and doing so back in Pakistan -, and since the PAEC team had built the institutions necessary for plutonium production, one was the quest to build the bomb trigger itself. Zia had two choices of which kind of bomb to pursue. As Khan explains,

There are two types of nuclear weapons design: gun-type and implosion. The former is a simpler design and typically uses HEU, while the latter is considerably more complex and uses Pu, although HEU is also possible. A gun-type design earns its name because it is detonated much like a bullet from a gun. One subcritical mass of uranium is fired through a “gun tube” into another mass to form one supercritical mass, causing an explosion. The implosion method is also very aptly named, as it involves a subcritical core of plutonium that is compressed by a symmetrical implosion of conventional explosives into the core, creating a supercritical mass and causing a much larger nuclear explosion.

But there was a hitch in the Pakistani case:

Since Pakistan was originally pursuing plutonium, pilot bomb designs employed the implosion method, and when there was little progress on the back-end of the fuel cycle, HEU became the substitute material for the same bomb design. […] In the words of [the theoretical physicist] Riazuddin, ‘Pakistan scientists had a double challenge. The path to producing HEU as fissile material is more challenging than extracting plutonium; designing an implosion device is far more difficult than the gun assembly. So we took the hard pathways on both counts.’

Throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s, then, PAEC sub-units, like the Wah Group, the Diagnostics Directorate, and R-Labs (all discussed in more detail in Chapter 9 of the book) began to work on the discrete components needed for a uranium implosion bomb. But the wily A.Q. Khan also managed to stay relevant. Many of the scientists working for PAEC, like the institution’s Director Munir Ahmad Khan and Riazuddin, were suspected of being Ahmedis (declared heretics and legally not Muslims under Bhutto in the 1970s); Zia viewed PAEC’s leaders as Bhutto loyalists with no special loyalty towards the new regime. In early May 1981, then, Zia visited A.Q. Khan at Kahuta Research Labs to inform him not only that the labs would henceforth becoming Khan Research Labs, but also that Khan was to direct (at the same time that PAEC pursued a uranium implosion bomb) an alternative bomb program. To show he was serious about the commitment, Zia sent Khan and top military aids off to Beijing:

Zia-ul-Haq then dispatched Lieutenant-General Syed Zamin Naqvi and A. Q. Khan to request bomb-grade fissile material and bomb designs. Their visit bore fruit as Pakistan then received the Chinese CHIC-4 weapon design along with fifty kilograms of HEU in 1981, material sufficient for two bombs. A. Q. Khan confirmed in a purported 2004 letter to his wife, ‘The Chinese gave us drawings of the nuclear weapon, gave us 50 kg of enriched uranium, gave us 10 tons of UF6 (natural) and 5 tons of UF6 (3%).’

While Feroz Khan concedes that the information on the history of KRL in the mid-1980s remains less than 100% clear, it appears that over the next several years KRL was successful at developing the bomb on its own, albeit in more primitive form than the PAEC team. In 1984, one year after the PAEC team managed to conduct its first successful ‘cold test’ of a bomb (testing the trigger mechanisms without the active uranium or plutonium to trigger a nuclear explosion), KRL conducted a cold test near Sargodha, in Punjab, and informed Zia that it was eager to begin hot tests. Still, because the KRL bomb team was had less funding and technical expertise than PAEC, its bomb designs were less sophisticated than those of Munir Ahmad Khan & co: ‘[KRL’s] product was still a large bomb that could be delivered only by a C-130 cargo aircraft with no assurance of delivery accuracy.’  Chillingly, however, having acquired the knowledge of how to build the bomb, KRL would continue to refine its own designs – a decision that would metastasize later in the 1990s. Continues Eating Grass:

A bomb design discovered in Libya in 2004, purportedly acquired through the A. Q. Khan network, detailed a weapon of less than 1 meter in diameter and 453 kg, leading to speculation that it was the same design KRL might have been working on. In reality, the bomb design exposed in Libya was not the one Pakistani scientists worked on and eventually tested.  Some quarter-century later, to the horror of Pakistan, another Pakistani weapons design— different from the Chinese design— was purportedly found on a computer in Switzerland that was supposed to be part of the infamous A. Q. Khan network.

More on A.Q. Khan in a moment. In the meantime, the bulky size of KRL’s bomb designs (even if they were not to be used by Pakistan) raised an obvious question about the hunt for nuclear security. In order to have a credible nuclear deterrent against India, Islamabad needed not only the bomb itself (which it was in theory ready to hot test by 1983); it needed delivery mechanisms with which it could threaten to bomb Indian military units or, in the doomsday scenario, Delhi or Bombay, too. This task seemed all the more urgent in the early 1980s for a variety of reasons. In April 1984, India’s Operation Meghdoot led to the occupation of the Siachen Glacier, a block of ice in Kashmir at an altitude of 21,000 feet that had gone un-demarcated (in part because it seemed insane to try to station troops that high) in the Simla Accords. Following a crisis of Punjabi and Sikh rebellions that culminated in Operation Blue Star and the subsequent assassination of Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards, New Delhi suspected Pakistan of fomenting separatism and terrorism in Indian Punjab. Similarly to Able Archer 83, in the summer of 1986, Pakistan’s military went on high alert when it became unclear, during the so-called Exercise Brasstacks, whether the Indian General Krishnaswami Sunderrajan was conducting military exercises, or whether he was about to launch a massive surprise invasion of Pakistan. On top of all of this, in 1988, India test-launched its Prithvi missile system, capable in theory of carrying a nuclear warhead.

Estimated range of various Indian ballistic missiles

Islamabad responded by pursuing both domestic and foreign tracks for gaining ballistic missile technology. Once again, Pakistan was starting from almost nothing (one of the reasons why, Western readers have to understand, the nuclear program and its attendant weapons system simultaneously represent a source of resentment and pride among Pakistanis). Other than a rudimentary rocket development program, SUPARCO, dating from the Ayub era, ‘aside from a few inaccurate ballistic missiles and Soviet Scuds that were fired into Pakistani tribal areas from Afghanistan, Pakistan had very little with which to start a missile program.’ Pakistan began to develop a solid-fuel missile program, Hatf (named after the sword of Mohammad), but at the same time it reached out to Beijing, as it had done in 1981 for bomb designs and uranium for KRL, for advanced missile technology.

It made sense from both sides: any new Indian missiles that could hit strategic targets in the PRC would, by definition, be able to hit anywhere in Pakistan, and Beijing enjoyed its position of being Islamabad’s primary arms broker. In 1992, China transferred some thirty assembled missiles to Sargodha, and deliveries of unassembled missiles followed. But just as important was the subsequent establishment in Pakistan of the Project Management Organization, a group tasked with creating ‘the foundations for a solid fuel missile, absorb the transfer of technology, and learn the art of reverse engineering and assembly techniques for the unassembled [Chinese] M-11 (DF-11) and M-9 (DF-15) ballistic missiles.’ This was no footnote: the Chinese missiles were designed for conventional, not nuclear warheads, and as the Pakistani nuclear physicist told Feroz Khan, ‘Any missile scientist would tell you that even a slight change in the diameter or configuration of the missile warheads would necessitate redesigning it as if starting from the scratch.’

By 2002, Pakistan had perfected Ghaznavi missiles derived from the Chinese designs, finally capable of delivering second-generation Pakistani nuclear weapons (but still not the bulky bomb designs perfected in the 1980s). Between the path to the PAEC-designed hot test bomb (tested at Chagai in 1998) and the partnership with Beijing for delivery mechanisms (bolstered by the Chinese’s construction of a turnkey missile factory in Fatehjung, Punjab to add to indigenous Pakistani missile and fuel expertise), by the 2000s, the Pakistani quest for nuclear weapons and formidable delivery systems – most notably the Shaheen series of missiles, tested in the mid-2000s – was complete.

Map showing the range of Pakistan’s nuclear-capable Shaheen II missiles, first tested in 2004.

Or was it? As we saw, back in 1981, Zia ul-Haq had originally tasked A.Q. Khan with developing a Route B to a Pakistani bomb. But the success of the PAEC team, Zia’s lessening paranoia about an Ahmedi conspiracy, and perhaps his growing confidence in his own legitimacy within Pakistan – not to mention A.Q. Khan’s flamboyant, if not erratic, style – made Khan less and less useful throughout the 1980s. Throughout the decade, one of the main points of tension between the United States and Pakistan had been Washington’s ability to certify that Pakistan was not developing nuclear weapons in defiance of NPT (which Pakistan resented for reasons discussed in Part II of this review). Particularly as it became clear that the Soviet Union was going to withdraw from Afghanistan, American Senators and Representatives could well question what, exactly, the United States was doing supplying hundreds of millions of dollars worth of military equipment to yet another country run by an illiberal military junta. From the Pakistani perspective, moreover, given that the delicate negotiations with Washington were taking place at the same time as Brasstacks, and as Mrs. Ghandi’s son, Rajiv, was beginning to find his feet within the Indo-Pakistani relationship, distractions or crises was the last thing Islamabad needed if it was going to walk the diplomatic tightrope. Zia had successfully initiated so-called ‘cricket diplomacy‘ between the two countries, attending an Indo-Pakistani test match in Jaipur in February 1987 as a follow-up to a December 1985 visit to Rajiv.

Pakistan’s Doctor Atomic: A.Q. Khan

Détente seemed within grasp, maybe. But that winter, the egomaniacal A.Q. Khan poured lighter fluid on what appeared to be smoldering Indo-Pakistani relations. Feroz Khan explains:

On January 28, A. Q. Khan expected at his residence the famous journalist Mushahid Hussain Syed, then working for the English Daily Muslim, who requested the visit to personally invite A. Q. Khan and his wife to his wedding. When Mushahid Hussain arrived, however, he was accompanied by a guest journalist from India, Kuldip Nayar. A. Q. Khan claims to have had no prior knowledge of this arrangement, but he extended courtesy and conversed with candor, disregarding security considerations of which a scientist of his caliber and responsibility should be acutely aware.

But A. Q. Khan, well known for self-aggrandizing his achievements, needed only a slight boost to his ego to become uninhibited. The two journalists were experienced in the art of extracting information from an egotistic scientist, and Khan went into overdrive, confirming the success of Pakistan’s enrichment capability and even boasting of Pakistan’s possession of a nuclear bomb. The two journalists were stunned by the confessions of the top Pakistani scientist and national hero. Mushahid Hussain construed Khan’s candor to be deliberate nuclear signaling to influence the intense ongoing diplomacy between the two countries to diffuse the Brasstacks military crisis. Kuldip Nayar became the self-appointed messenger to convey the ‘nuclear threat’ to India. He is believed to have reported the matter to the Indian embassy in Islamabad that very evening.

This was precisely what was not needed. Coming on the heels of Brasstacks, from the Indian point of view, Khan’s boasting (which became public knowledge in March, after Zia’s visit to Jaipur), might seem like a veiled Pakistani threat to launch a surprise nuclear attack on India. From the point of view of USA-Pakistan relations, Khan’s boasting fueled the efforts of Senators like Larry Pressler, who implemented the Pressler Amendment to US, banning American military and economic aid to Pakistan unless it could be confirmed annually that Pakistan did not possess and/or was not developing a nuclear weapon. Soon, even though Pakistan had already paid several hundred million dollars for a shipment of F-16 fighter jets, the airplanes were left to collect dust in warehouses in the United States. Zia turned over all bomb projects to PAEC, had The Daily Muslim dismantled and starved of advertising revenue, ruining Mushahid Hussain, and gave A.Q. Khan a dressing-down:

Syed Refaqat Ali, who was chief of staff to President Zia-ul-Haq, narrated to [Feroz Khan] how the wrath of Zia fell on A. Q. Khan: ‘Zia-ul-Haq was always [a] warm-hearted man and courteous to all invited guests in his home regardless of rank or status. President Zia himself told me the next morning, “I have never given any rough treatment to any guest in my house but A. Q Khan is the only one left trembling and perspiring when he left my house last evening.”‘

Soon further events took even more power out of A.Q. Khan’s hands. On August 17, 1988, Zia and the U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan died under mysterious circumstances in a plane crash near Bahawalpur, leading to the rise of ‘Ghulam Ishaq Khan (GIK), then chairman of the senate, to the presidency, and the formation of a troika comprising the president, Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, and Chief of the Army Staff Mirza Aslam Beg to decide on all security and nuclear issues.’ But tensions between GIK, the Army, and Bhutto quickly led to the dissolution of Benazir’s government in August 1990. ‘At the time’, notes Khan, ‘the focus of the world was on Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, so Pakistani domestic politics drew little attention. Under the constitution an interim government was formed and elections held within ninety days. A new prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, was sworn into office in 1990.’ But when Sharif attempted to rally Pakistani support for George H.W. Bush’s coalition of forces against Saddam Hussein, he butted heads with GIK and the then-Army Chief Aslam Beg. Further disagreements over paramilitary operations in urban Sindh and Karachi, and over the appointment of a new Army Chief, led GIK to attempt to dismiss the Sharif government in April 1993. A power struggle between GIK and Sharif ensued, which prompted the Army to intervene and demand new elections in 1993, which Benazir Bhutto won to return for her second stint in power. During the summer of 1993, GIK was concerned about maintaining civilian control over the nuclear program (something which Benazir’s father had first instituted in the 1970s). Writes Khan:

Anticipating political uncertainty and having overseen the fragile political leadership for five years, GIK in his wisdom considered it best to hand over the custody of nuclear matters to Army Chief General Abdul Waheed. In General Headquarters (GHQ), the army chief tasked Director General of the Combat Development Directorate (DGCD) Major General Ziauddin, a two-star general, to take charge of the documents and become the point person on all nuclear issues on his behalf. For the first time in the nation’s history, the locus of nuclear program decision-making was transferred from the president’s office to army headquarters.

This all represented an opportunity for A.Q. Khan. ‘The top national leadership of President Ghulam Ishaq Khan and General Mirza Aslam had almost blind faith in A.Q. Khan’s messianic ability to trouble-shoot and complete any assigned task regardless of [the] odds’, writes Feroz Khan, and re-organizing nuclear matters away from the political leadership (occupied in any event by Zia in the 1980s) meant that Khan could regain initiative as a relevant player in Pakistan’s nuclear landscape. At the same time that Pakistan was acquiring missile technology from China, then, KRL and government officials visited North Korea to witness tests of the liquid fuel Nodong missile. Not that this was all just a handout to KRL after their decline relative to PAEC in the late 1980s. The Chinese M-11 missiles lacked the range to penetrate deep into Indian territory, and Islamabad was eager to have a backup option to Chinese technology in the event that Beijing changed its strategic preferences. Due to North Korea’s geography, moreover, it was impossible for Pyongyang to test long-range ballistic missiles without throwing Northeast Asia into crisis, so a partnership with Pakistan offered the possibility of an ‘annex’ for North Korean technology. Parallel, then, to the partnership with China for the Shaheen missiles, KRL began to obtain North Korean technology, hosted a North Korean-built turnkey facility for reverse-engineering, and eventually pioneered its own path of Ghauri missiles, named after the 13th century Turko-Persian ruler who established a Muslim empire in present-day Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The A.Q. Khan myth: alive and well?

And yet, as Feroz Khan reflected in our conversation, GIK, Sharif, Bhutto, and the Army may have been naïve in their dealings with Khan. Especially after the Chagai tests in 1998, it was easy, and certainly emotionally satisfying, to hail Khan as the savior of the nation, the man who had ‘delivered’ (a frequent verb used for Khan) on Bhutto’s original ambitions to build a nuclear weapon for Pakistan. (The myth persists to this day, even though, as Feroz Khan emphasized, the bulk of the work that actually went into the design of the bomb was conducted by PAEC scientists under Munir Ahmad Khan in the 1980s, not KRL.) But if the ambition of leaders like Bhutto or, later, GIK, had been to build a nuclear core to the Pakistani state that could ensure Pakistan’s survival in spite of Indian aggression or internal stability, Khan’s megalomania drove him to a different, if not always opposed goal. Already in the late 1980s, Iran had attempted to reach out to Khan to share centrifuges – something Zia opposed – but KRL arranged delivery of uranium centrifuges to Tehran in 1989, after Zia was dead and buried. The early 1990s North Korea visit gave Khan contacts with Pyongyang he had not had before. Pre-existing nuclear ties with Libya for uranium supplies built by Khan and Butt were already in place, too, of course; when Libya’s nuclear program was dismantled in 2003, it became known that Khan had supplied centrifuges to Qaddafi, as well.

If we believe Eating Grass, it seems plausible that this was all out of the control of the Pakistani military: it had enough trouble on its hands with actually testing the bomb until 1998, and developing reliable delivery mechanisms for its nukes until the early 2000s. While risk further pariah-dom by proliferating further? But such concerns, contends Feroz, hardly exercised A.Q. Khan, whose long-term goal was to construct an ’empire of centrifuges’ spreading from Tripoli to Tehran to Pyongyang. If the Pakistani Establishment was content to exploit the networks Bhutto had built to consolidate nuclear security at home, A.Q. Khan’s goal was far more ambitious: he wanted to privatize the ad hoc networks that Bhutto had built across the Third World in the 1970s and which I examined in Part II. Indeed, according to Feroz Khan, the ambitions of Pakistani GHQ re: nuclear weapons are more modest, and Pakistan-centric, than one commonly supposes. While Islamabad sticks to a rhetoric of being the first country to develop an ‘Islamic bomb’, and while reactionary Islamist parties like Jamaat-i Islami argue that ‘Pakistan as an Islamic state has a responsibility to the broader Umma.  .  .  . Pakistan’s nuclear weapons will inevitably be seen as a threat by Israel, and therefore Pakistan must include Israel in its defense planning’, Feroz can find no concrete evidence of Saudi-Pakistani nuclear cooperation, even as a contingency plan in the even of an Iranian bomb.

One hopes that these scenarios remain just that – contingency plans. In the meantime, keep your eyes peeled for some final reflections on Eating Grass and Pakistani history in a day or two (already written, but I want to try to limit my blogging logorrhoea …).


One thought on “Review of Feroz Khan’s ‘Eating Grass: The Making of the Pakistani Bomb’ – Part III

  1. The Kaleidoscope

    Oh Tim, it is very interesting what you write. By the way, it is not too bad demanding some intellectual potential from your readers. This is an extremely important topic for the survival of humankind.
    I do not mind the length of your articles.

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