The clandestine AQ Khan proliferation network, aka the global nuclear Walmart, came into the public domain in 2003. In the intervening years, Pakistan’s proliferation track record and the role played by disgraced scientist AQ Khan have been the subject of about 10 books. The book under review adds to this corpus in a creditable manner. Hassan Abbas, whose doctoral thesis has been distilled into this book, sets himself an important question: “Why did Pakistan acquire nuclear weapons technology, and what caused the nuclear proliferation from Pakistan to Iran, North Korea and Libya?” The answers are cautiously comprehensive and Abbas is to be commended for the diligence (notes and bibliography alone are 90 pages) and lucidity with which he has provided his perspective on what remains both an enigma and a challenge.
The enigma is how one individual, in this case Khan, was able to ‘hoodwink’ an entire nation and remain undetected for years—if the received wisdom on this murky iceberg is to be believed; and the challenge is what such illicit nuclear proliferation activities can do to corrode global security and stability. After 200 pages, the author arrives at his conclusion that “in the absence of an established decision-making process and a clear chain of command, it was possible for a small team to hoodwink the government of Pakistan”. There are shades of Osama bin Laden and Abbotabad here, where again it was suggested that the 9/11 mastermind was actually ensconced in a safe house in a Pakistani army cantonment—and as in the Khan case, the state machinery was unaware!
Renowned Pakistani physicist Pervez Hoodbhoy did argue at the time that the nuclear centrifuges that were being traded weighed about half a ton and “if there were aircraft of the Pakistan air force that flew these centrifuges out—well obviously, there had to be somebody at the top who was also involved”. The finger points to the top military leadership, but this strand of deductive logic is not pursued by Abbas to its logical end—which is why one refers to the book as being ‘cautiously comprehensive’. Yet the link between tacitly enabling nuclear proliferation and concurrently supporting terror groups makes the Pakistani nuclear trajectory extremely relevant for global security, and Abbas makes a very pertinent observation that merits greater scrutiny. He avers: “The AQ Khan network more than anything else has shown that non-state actors can penetrate deep into the proliferation business, which in the past has been largely dominated by state actors.”
Pakistan’s acquisition of nuclear weapon capability and the manner in which the army generals of that country have assiduously acquired control of this apocalyptic capability, while successfully keeping the elected civilian leadership out of the loop and using the ‘nuke’ as a shield to enable terrorism, accords Islamabad a distinctive status in the global comity.
Among the nine nuclear weapon-capable nations (US, Russia, France, UK and China; India and Pakistan; North Korea and an opaque Israel), it is only Pakistan that has the dubious distinction of having the army in the driver’s seat of nuclear command and control and also creating an ecosystem that nurtured rampant nuclear proliferation (AQ Khan) and the tenacious support to terror groups.
The book has some little known nuggets about China’s role in Pakistan acquiring nuclear technology, and later weapon design. China was approached as early as March 1965 by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto for “help in acquiring nuclear weapons capability”; that “there is a strong possibility that AQ Khan had received Chinese help as early as 1981”; and that by June 1982, British intelligence had received “reports of ‘significant’ Chinese assistance to Pakistan for nuclear weapons design”.
Abbas has trawled through reams of reference material and strung it together persuasively, but the reticence is palpable when it comes to key actors and their role in facilitating the Pakistani acquisition of nukes and the proliferation network. For instance, the empathetic handling of the Pakistani military top brass for their omissions of institutional ineptitude and fiscal turpitude are left unaddressed.
The other intriguing omission in an otherwise impressive review by Abbas of the triggers and enablers in Pakistan’s acquisition of the nuclear weapon is the role of China. Brief reference has been made as noted earlier, but the reluctance to focus on China is evident. Sino-Pak WMD (weapons of mass destruction) cooperation remains one of the most opaque areas of the global nuclear domain and a logical analytical question is: “Did Beijing have a stake in a nuclear-armed Pakistan?” The extrapolation to North Korea and how the Hermit Kingdom acquired its capability is axiomatic. These are complex issues and perhaps Abbas may have to consider a follow-up book, and detail what Pakistan did with its nuclear capability and interrogate the proposition that Rawalpindi is the patent holder for ‘nuclear weapon-enabled terror’ (NWET), and furthermore, that Beijing is not unaware of this linkage. But for now, the central question on which the book has been premised has been answered very cogently, thereby illuminating an issue that concerns global security and stability—illicit nuclear proliferation with tacit state support.
C Uday Bhaskar is director, Society for Policy Studies, New Delhi