A Leaf From History: Pakistan’s nuclear cat on a hot tin roofArchive
The US administration had kept a vigilant eye on political developments in Pakistan for quite some time but the country’s attempts to acquire nuclear capability were on the top of the US agenda.
Meanwhile, Benazir Bhutto, the country’s first democratically elected prime minister since the death of dictator Gen Zia prepared for her scheduled visit to the US in June 1989.
Pakistan’s immediate need was financial assistance to meet its budgetary deficit. Although US aid was coming in to support Pakistan’s anti-Soviet occupation policy in Afghanistan, the country confronted the huge challenge of supporting more than four million Afghan refugees as a result of war.
The US feared, however, that a part of the funds provided for refugees and other allied issues was being used instead for the development of a nuclear bomb.
Consequently with the aim of capping Pakistan’s nuclear programme, US aid had become conditional for the continuation of military and economic aid.
For the continuation of military and economic aid, the Pressler amendment, passed in 1985 required the American president to issue annual certification that Pakistan did not possess a nuclear explosive device.
Despite being prime minister, Bhutto had been kept isolated from the nuclear programme.
Although no reasons were given for it, it seemed that civilian involvement was not welcome in the secretive programme by the military.
She decided to meet Dr Munir Ahmad, chairman of the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission to discuss Pakistan’s nuclear capability.
It was during this meeting that Benazir Bhutto was introduced to Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan who had been put in charge of developing the bomb by her father Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.
The prime minister asked Dr Munir Ahmad to move the Ministry of Science and Technology closer to her office and to report to her on a daily basis. She also made funds available for several national security and defence projects.
This infuriated President Ghulam Ishaq Khan who saw national security as his domain. As she continued with her projects and planning, Bhutto maintained her public stance saying: “We only want nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.”
Despite US and other Western powers trying to stop Pakistan from becoming a nuclear power, it is believed that Pakistan acquired nuclear capability in 1987.
On January 11, 1989, a US delegation led by Congressman Stephen Solarz visited Pakistan and called on President Ghulam Ishaq Khan who tried to convince him that Pakistan was not making a bomb.
He also asked the US not to discriminate about nuclear technology in South Asia, since India had become an avowed nuclear power back in 1974.
By the end of March 1989, two months ahead of her visit to the US, Bhutto became aware that Pakistan had achieved nuclear capability to a great extent.
To prevent a possible US embargo, she made sure that documents were prepared showing that the nuclear programme had been capped, although enrichment continued unabated.
On arrival in the US on June 4, 1989, Benazir Bhutto received a warm welcome and was appreciated for adhering to democracy and objectively dealing with issues that confronted her. With this visit, she also became the first Pakistani prime minister to have been invited to address a joint session of the US Congress.
While she held discussions with US President George Bush and other high ranking officials of the US administration, a spell of conflicting reports about Pakistan’s nuclear programme appeared in the media.
Some sources expressed reservations about Benazir’s stance and, subsequently, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) also expressed its inability to confirm if Pakistan had really capped its nuclear programme. According to the CIA, “Pakistan has taken the final step toward possession of a nuclear weapon by machining uranium metal into bomb cores.”
For an accurate verification, the US government asked Robert Gates, Assistant to the President and Deputy National Security Adviser at the White House to report on Pakistan’s nuclear capability.
He reported that Pakistan was not making a bomb but warned that, unless Pakistan melted down the bomb cores it had produced, President Bush would not be able to issue the Pressler amendment certification needed to permit the continued flow of military and economic aid.
Twenty-four years later in 2013, Pakistan’s former ambassador to the United States Hussain Haqqani wrote in his book Magnificent Delusions, “When the Pakistanis denied that they had ‘crossed the line’, Gates commented, ‘if it waddles like a duck, if it quacks like a duck, then maybe it is a duck’.”
Haqqani wrote that, “Pakistanis had lied to Gates on both the issues that he had raised in Islamabad.” The US administration had been very watchful of Pakistan’s developments in politics and had refused certification to Pakistan before the December 1988 elections.
Haqqani further wrote, “The US had failed to recognise that no Pakistani government could curtail the nuclear programme. After having acquired the bomb, expecting Pakistan to give it up was unrealistic; instead, this was the time for the US to accept Pakistan’s nuclear status as fait accompli.
If nuclear weapons were Pakistan’s ultimate guarantee against its psychological fears against India, the purpose had been achieved.
Rather than limiting itself to implementing the Pressler sanctions while Pakistan persisted with denial and bluster, the US could have asked Pakistan to be honest about the nukes and then negotiated safeguards against further proliferation.”
After prolonged meetings with US officials and politicians, Benazir Bhutto managed to convince President Bush to issue certification saying that Pakistan did not possess a nuclear bomb.
But after her government’s dismissal in November 1990 by President Ghulam Ishaq Khan, he denied the annual certification and applied an embargo through the Pressler Amendment which had a deadly impact on Pakistan’s economy.
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, September 4th, 2016