IS the bomb necessary to Pakistan’s survival? And is Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan, widely credited with being its creator, the mastermind of the global nuclear weapons proliferation ring?
These questions have surfaced yet again because in a recent interview over the telephone to The Washington Post, Dr Khan stated that it was Pakistan’s humiliating defeat in the 1971 war with India that sparked his desire to help Pakistan build the bomb. Khan also said that the development of a nuclear weapons programme was a proud accomplishment for Pakistan, adding that the two rival nations had not gone to war since the atomic explosions in May 1998.
Dr Khan also withdrew the confession that he made on national television in 2004, saying he was coerced into it by people who said, “No one will believe it. This statement has no legal value. Everyone knows you are a national hero.”
Emboldened by Musharraf’s slipping power, Dr Khan has taken the offensive and declared that the Musharraf government was blameworthy for the proliferation of weapons to Iran, Libya and North Korea. He also promised that in due course of time, “the truth will come out”.
Dr Khan seems to have left the door open to having disseminated nuclear weapons technology legally because he claims to have only carried out the government’s bidding and to have briefed then Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto regularly. He also denies violating any laws since Pakistan did not sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The acclaimed scientist also endorsed the most enduring myth in Pakistan’s strategic culture – survival depends on having, but not using, the bomb since India is Pakistan’s inveterate enemy and the war of 1971 is living proof of its malevolence.
But this fable does not stand up to the test of history. It was not India that precipitated the civil war in East Pakistan but Gen Yahya’s myopic policies. The civil war triggered a mass exodus of refugees into India which ultimately invited artillery shelling from across the border. Even then, a full-scale war could have been averted. But after Pakistan bombed Indian airfields in the western theatre on Dec 3, defeat in the eastern theatre was a matter of time. The fact that it happened in less than two weeks was simply a comment on how martial law had sapped the fighting will of the Pakistani army.
Going further back in time to August 1965, we find the same symptoms. Based on a misreading of India’s intentions and an exaggerated assessment of its own capabilities, the army sparked a guerrilla insurgency in Indian Kashmir, hoping to stir up a revolt. That never happened. Some of the guerrillas were turned over to Indian authorities by native Kashmiris and spilt the beans on All India Radio.
The full scale war that erupted when India retaliated against Lahore in September was initially touted as a victory by the generals in Rawalpindi. But with the passage of time, and as one Pakistani general after another penned his memoirs, it emerged as a military debacle of immense magnitude; one in which all the mistakes of the misadventure of 1947-48 were repeated on a grander scale, with armour and jet fighters.
Contrary to Dr Khan’s assertion, the bomb simply makes the Pakistani establishment even more war prone. How else does one explain the debacle in Kargil? Instead of contributing to the nation’s survival, the bomb is inexorably contributing to its decline. On the one hand, national sovereignty has been compromised by myriad interventions from the West to ensure that nuclear weapons do not fall into evil hands. On the other end, the political culture has been destroyed as suicide bombings have been employed to bring about political change.
As to the second issue of Dr Khan’s role in the proliferation ring, we still don’t know the truth and may not live to know it. The topic continues to spawn debate across the world. The latest contribution comes from Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark who have written a copious book, Deception: Pakistan, the United States and the Global Nuclear Weapons Conspiracy.
Levy and Scott-Clark state that contrary to popular perception, Pakistan’s search for nuclear weapons was not hidden from the US. President Ronald Reagan simply looked the other way so that the covert war against the Soviets in Afghanistan would not be compromised. The authors allege that there were people in the US government who wanted to blow the whistle on Pakistan’s nuclear programme but they were silenced by a bevy of American defence contractors and their counterparts in the Pentagon. Decades after President Eisenhower warned of the existence of a military-industrial complex, it was very much alive and well.
They also argue that when aid was cut off by the original President Bush, Pakistan had already acquired bomb-making materials and resorted to selling its technology and know-how to other countries as a means of financing its ever expanding nuclear programme. The country was in a nuclear arms race with India from which there was no exit. The doomsday scenarios kept getting scarier. And tensions along with expenditure on conventional weapons did not diminish either. There was no ‘nuclear dividend’. The book also suggests that Dr Khan could not have set up and carried out an international proliferation ring without the blessings of GHQ. To back-up their assertions, the writers cite numerous interviews that they conducted with senior American and Pakistani officials. But this information is hard to verify.
Few would deny that Dr Khan was instrumental in bringing the bomb to Pakistan. He richly deserves whatever accolades such an accomplishment generates and merits. Whether he was responsible for global proliferation or not, only time can and will tell. Until such time it is unfair to accuse him.
But on one fundamental issue, Dr Khan is not only wrong but a danger to Pakistan’s future. He has confused cause and effect in history when he argues that the bomb has made Pakistan stronger. In fact, it has made it weaker. It would be best for him to stay out of military strategy, a subject which is clearly not his territory. Surely being immortalised in a future Hollywood production as the Dr Strangelove of Pakistan is not one of his ambitions.
The writer is an associate of the Pakistan Security Research Unit at the University of Bradford.
Source: Daily Dawn, 16/6/2008