One Screw Short

Owen Bennett-Jones

  • Pakistan’s Nuclear Bomb: A Story of Defiance, Deterrence and Deviance by Hassan Abbas
    Hurst, 341 pp, £25.00, January 2018, ISBN 978 1 84904 715 9

How did Pakistan become the world’s leading nuclear proliferator? North Korea, Libya, Iran: none of them would have worked on building a bomb if it hadn’t been for A.Q. Khan, Pakistan’s leading nuclear scientist, and if it hadn’t been for the Pakistani military, which gave the programme its full support. Drawing on the recollections of former decision-makers, Hassan Abbas offers the most complete account yet of how the programme worked, and what it meant: a source of national pride, and a source of cash. The story begins with Iran in the mid-1980s. In the face of repeated Iraqi chemical weapons attacks, the government in Tehran decided to revive the shah’s nuclear programme – overcoming Ayatollah Khomeini’s reservations about the bomb’s sharia-compliance. Iran needed help to get started and turned to Pakistan’s military dictator, General Zia, who authorised Pakistan’s nuclear scientists to engage with their Iranian counterparts. At the time Washington was threatening Pakistan with sanctions for its work on the bomb, and Zia may have calculated that low-level nuclear co-operation with Iran could be used as a negotiating chip to be traded in later: the co-operation could always be ended if sanctions looked imminent, as a way of averting the threat.

So the general, always adept at managing the relationship with Washington, directed his officials to help the Iranians – but not to give them anything substantial. Between 1986 and 2001 Pakistan provided Iran with designs for a uranium enrichment facility as well as key components needed to make a bomb. By the time the co-operation began, Khan had already put together an international network of suppliers and middlemen to procure the materials Pakistan needed for its own nuclear programme – a network that eventually included businessmen and engineers in Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea, Turkey, South Africa and Switzerland. A front company in Dubai, Gulf Technical Industries, was run by a British businessman who lived near Swansea. This loose confederation saw Iran as a potential new customer; Khan’s name gave their sales pitch credibility. In 1987, Pakistan sent Iran two used centrifuges which, in line with Zia’s directives, were of limited use: Khan himself was already working on a more advanced model. Abbas believes the person in charge of the day to day management of the nuclear relationship with Iran was General Beg, at the time vice chief of army staff, who once claimed that Tehran had offered him $10 billion for nuclear weapons technology. In the event Pakistan sold it much more cheaply.

An indication of quite how tight a grip Pakistan’s military kept on all this is that Benazir Bhutto knew nothing about it until well into her first term as prime minister – and even then found out only by accident. In the autumn of 1989, as she told Abbas and others, she was at a conference in Tehran when President Rafsanjani invited her into a quiet corner to discuss a sensitive matter. He said he wanted to reaffirm the agreement their two countries had reached on ‘special defence matters’. Unaware of any such arrangement, Bhutto said: ‘What exactly are you talking about, Mr President?’ ‘Nuclear technology, Madam Prime Minister, nuclear technology,’ Rafsanjani replied. Back home, Bhutto asked the president and army chief what he’d been talking about; they pretended they hadn’t a clue.

Abbas concludes that the initial phase of co-operation with Iran was conducted without the army’s institutional support – but that Khan had the tacit backing of a small number of senior individuals. It’s a rather odd way of looking at it. If a serving army chief makes major strategic commitments to a foreign power it’s hard to see how the outcome can be considered a freelance or rogue operation.

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Then there was the deal with North Korea, which came about during Bhutto’s second term in office. This time, more aware of the need to placate the Pakistani deep state, she offered to do its bidding. The journalist Shyam Bhatia, who had known Bhutto at Oxford, interviewed her in Dubai in 2004. In the course of their conversation, Bhatia says, Bhutto revealed that in 1993, while she was prime minister, she had personally carried discs with data on uranium enrichment into Pyongyang. She had even bought an overcoat with especially deep pockets so as to conceal the discs on her journey. Loyal friends of Bhutto have rejected the claim outright, insisting that she and Bhatia were only distant acquaintances. But when you listen to the tape of the 2004 interview – and hear them discuss Bhutto’s brother Murtaza, whom Bhatia had met in Damascus – it’s clear that the two knew each other well. Frustratingly, the comments about taking the data to Pyongyang weren’t recorded – Bhatia says Bhutto asked that the tape recorder be switched off before she told the story.

There were of course other senior Pakistanis involved in the arrangement with North Korea. Khan has claimed that three army chiefs, Generals Kakar, Karamat and Musharraf, knew all about it. Karamat’s possible involvement, first publicly alleged in the Washington Post in 2011, is particularly interesting. The Post claimed that in 1998, in order to secure military support for the deal, Khan gave Karamat – chief of army staff at the time – half a million dollars of North Korean money in cash, for use in ‘secret army funds’. Apparently this was not enough to win him over, so Khan hand-delivered him another $2.5 million – some of it hidden in a cardboard box under a layer of fruit, some in a canvas bag.

The story’s provenance was rock-solid: the source was a British journalist turned Washington think-tanker, Simon Henderson, who had established a relationship with Khan in the 1970s while working in Pakistan as a stringer for the BBC and the Financial Times. They kept in touch. Khan had good reason to unburden himself to Henderson. In 2004, after Pakistan’s involvement in nuclear proliferation became known to the world, Khan appeared on TV to make a confession: he himself took ‘full responsibility’ for the nuclear deals, which ‘were inevitably initiated at my behest’. He added – in words which the state presumably insisted he include – that ‘there was never any kind of authorisation for these activities from the government’ or the military. He was under house arrest for the next five years, and being made a lone scapegoat must have rankled. So once he was released he started naming names in public. Eventually he sent Henderson a copy of a letter from a North Korean official that detailed the secret payments.

Given the seriousness of the allegation, the Post put considerable resources into verifying the document. Having satisfied themselves that it was genuine, they splashed it on the front page. Karamat strongly denied the allegation but chose not to sue. The fate of what should have been a world-class scoop was instructive. Washington was heavily invested at the time in trying to improve relations with Pakistan so as to further US goals in Afghanistan: no one in the administration could see any advantage in holding the Pakistani army to account, and with the exception of the Post the press toed the government line. Khan must have been deeply frustrated. Having got the story published on the front page of a major Western newspaper he should have been in a position to begin a conversation about nuclear proliferation that involved a central pillar of the Pakistani state. But nobody took any notice.

While evidence of military officials’ involvement in the cases of Iran and North Korea is compelling, it’s possible that the Libyan deal was arranged without official sanction. Pakistan’s sale of nuclear technology to Libya began in 1997, by which time a number of things had changed. The network Khan had put together to build the bomb had grown into a fully fledged international arms-trading outfit, selling conventional weapons as well as nuclear equipment. The Libyan programme was on a much larger scale than those in Iran and North Korea, and included an order for ten thousand centrifuges for uranium enrichment built from parts manufactured in a factory on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur. The deal was worth $100 million, making it hard to believe that no one in the Pakistani system knew what Khan was doing. Against that, Khan was by this point so sure of himself that he thought he answered to nobody. President Musharraf once described what happened when, in 2001, he heard that Khan had arranged a trip to the Iranian city of Zahedan. When Musharraf asked him about it, Khan refused to have a discussion: the trip was ‘important’ and ‘very secret’. Musharraf not unreasonably replied: ‘What the hell do you mean?’

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Most accounts of Pakistan’s recent history don’t dwell on the bomb’s impact on the country’s politics. But, as Abbas shows, the management of the nuclear programme reveals much about the relationship between civilian and military power in Pakistan, in the case of Benazir Bhutto in particular. From the moment of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s overthrow in 1977, the only people in authority definitely not involved in the nuclear programme were elected politicians. Zulfikar Bhutto maintained control only because it had been his idea in the first place (he had first proposed it during the military reign of Ayub Khan, who thought it impractical). For Zulfikar, the case for going nuclear was overwhelming. After the humiliating breakaway of East Pakistan to form Bangladesh in 1971, the nuclear programme would address the perception that India was always getting the better of Pakistan. In 1974, India conducted a successful nuclear test, and to achieve strategic parity Pakistan needed to do the same. A Pakistani bomb would show Delhi and the world that the once discriminated-against Muslim minority could advance its post-Partition national project. Whether Benazir Bhutto saw it differently is unclear. She wanted to build on her father’s achievements and the nuclear project was a crucial element of Zulfikar’s legacy. But the military were suspicious from the outset. In her first news conference after being sworn in as prime minister in 1988, Bhutto said she was committed to the peaceful use of nuclear technology and that Pakistan would be bomb-free – the standard line that General Zia had used before her. When Zia said it, everyone knew it to be a lie. But when it came from Benazir Bhutto, generals in the Pakistan army and diplomats in Washington all wondered if she might just mean it.

During Bhutto’s first election campaign, Islamist opponents questioned her commitment to the nuclear programme. One of Pakistan’s most prominent religious extremists, Sami ul Haq, insisted that the country’s nuclear weapons weren’t safe under the leadership of a Westernised woman who cared more about American approval than protecting the Ummah’s first nuclear bomb. In the run-up to the vote, General Hamid Gul, then head of the all-powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency and later a devoted friend of hardline jihadists, told journalists that Bhutto had promised the Americans she would end development of nuclear weapons. But once she took office she found it wasn’t so easy. Abbas says Bhutto told him that within weeks of her becoming prime minister General Beg, who was then army chief, emphasised that the nuclear programme was a ‘no go’ area for her – i.e. above her pay grade – and referred her to the president, Ghulam Ishaq Khan. But when she asked the president about it he too rebuffed her: ‘There is no need for you to know,’ he said. She later said that she was blocked from visiting Khan’s research laboratories.

The US realised how little Bhutto was being told about the programme. In June 1989, in an extraordinary show of trust, the CIA went so far as to brief her on her own nuclear programme while she was on a visit to Washington. The Pakistani ambassador to the US at the time – a Zia-era holdover called Jamsheed Marker – claims he attended the briefing, during which the CIA’s director showed her a mock-up of Pakistan’s bomb, revealing just as much or as little as the Americans thought she should know. Marker later praised Ishaq Khan’s success in keeping Bhutto in the dark about the nuclear programme. The American briefing was surely intended to empower her to do something about it; in fact it only entrenched the hostility of her opponents.

The army has taken most of the blame for the lack of democratic oversight over nuclear weapons. But opponents of democracy in Pakistan come in many forms: civilian as well as military, in the private sector as well as in government. Ishaq Khan was a prime example. A career bureaucrat, he had close links with the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI), which was founded in 1972 by a Pakistani businessman, Aga Hasan Abedi, and went on to become one of the biggest private banks in the world. Abedi’s strategy for growth wasn’t complicated: he cultivated people in power. Ishaq Khan, who in the 1970s had a stint running the State Bank, was one of them. In 1981, Abedi granted him the chairmanship of the BCC Foundation, BCCI’s charitable arm, and in return Ishaq Khan, minister of finance at the time, gave BCCI tax-free status in Pakistan. The foundation funded one institution with particular generosity: the Ghulam Ishaq Khan Institute of Engineering Sciences and Technology, which received $10 million in 1987 alone. The institute’s director was none other than A.Q. Khan, who also used the bank to process his purchases of nuclear supplies. In January 1989, after Bhutto became prime minister, the US requested that BCCI’s operating licence be suspended. Bhutto agreed to help but soon ran into obstacles. The Americans believed that powerful interests – including generals, the foreign minister and civil servants – were in the pay of BCCI and were blocking her attempts to curtail the bank.

Bhutto once said that Pakistan successfully built its bomb just as she won power. General Beg insisted that it happened a year earlier, in 1987. The discrepancy could be explained away as a matter of definition: was a device one screw short of completion a bomb or not? The issue had diplomatic significance. Under US law, to avoid imposing sanctions on Pakistan, the White House had to certify that Pakistan did not have the bomb. As Bhutto’s CIA briefing had indicated, the US had detailed knowledge of the programme. But Washington was reluctant to alienate its ally in the anti-Soviet struggle in Afghanistan and repeatedly fudged the issue. By early 1989, after the Soviet withdrawal, there was no reason for the Americans to continue turning a blind eye to Pakistan’s activities. At this point Bhutto complicated matters by halting the production of highly enriched uranium of the kind needed for a weapon. It was a significant concession, and it encouraged the Americans to think their non-proliferation agenda was making progress. When Bhutto had talks in the White House she was able to insist that Pakistan had not built a bomb (still a screw short), that it was not making weapons-grade plutonium (she had just banned it) and that it was not engaged in nuclear proliferation (she lacked direct knowledge of what was going on). Having received these assurances, President George H.W. Bush told Bhutto that the US would certify Pakistan as not having a nuclear weapon, in 1989 at least: more progress would be needed to ensure the same certification in 1990. But when 1990 came round, President Ishaq Khan and his army chief reactivated the uranium enrichment programme. Sanctions soon followed.

Abbas interestingly suggests that these differences on the nuclear issue may have played a part in the dismissal of Bhutto’s first government. There were many factors behind Ishaq Khan’s decision to remove her from power just twenty months after she took office. Her attempts to control senior army appointments irked a military leadership used to running its own affairs. Her lack of experience added to the view expressed in mess rooms up and down the country that a woman’s place was not in Prime Minister House. A former head of the Directorate for Military Intelligence – one of the most powerful institutions in the country – grumbled that she had described his organisation as ‘M One’ rather than the acronym everyone uses in Pakistan, MI. The impression she gave that she was making it up as she went along made it hard for her to assert herself. She also faced a deeply unco-operative opposition led by her rival in the election, Nawaz Sharif, who refused to accept his defeat. The deep state helped Sharif to persuade political parties that had been government allies, such as the Karachi-based MQM, to join the opposition. There was also her campaign against the narcotics trade then booming in Afghanistan and North-West Pakistan. Her co-operation with the US on the issue jeopardised billions of dollars of illicit earnings in Pakistan, some of it being made by serving and retired army officers as well as senior politicians. But the nuclear issue was decisive. She was up against a coalition of scientists, businessmen, military officers and civilian officials who saw the bomb not only as vital to the national interest but also, through the proliferation of nuclear technology, as a lucrative source of funds for the state – and for many of the individuals involved. A.Q. Khan later admitted that he had been among those who pressed for her dismissal, a request to which Ishaq Khan eventually agreed. Such is the power of the bomb.

This piece was amended on 15 July.