In December 1975, a thin man with a light moustache landed at the Karachi Airport, where he was awaited by a top Pakistani Military general. He had three large suitcases with him, all stuffed with photographed and hand-written documents that he had stolen from a Dutch lab where he worked as a translator. These documents were technical designs of a revolutionary new technology to make a nuclear bomb. His name was Abdul Qadeer Khan. He was here to make, as the world would come to know of it, the first Islamic Bomb.
In July 1974, AQ Khan had written to the Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, offering to build a nuclear bomb for Pakistan. The timing of the letter had been perfect, for only two months ago India had exploded a nuclear bomb of its own, which had thrown Islamabad into a tizzy. Pakistan had been trying to develop its own nuclear bomb since 1958, but had consistently failed because of the lack of money and the technical know-how. The Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) was still many years away from developing a bomb. So the letter from this unknown mining engineer had come as a god-sent for Bhutto.
Pakistan had been trying to develop a nuclear bomb through Plutonium, which is a very expensive and difficult exercise. What AQ Khan offered, instead, was building the bomb with Uranium-239, enriched through centrifuges, which was a cheaper and quicker process. This enrichment technology was just being developed by a European Consortium called UNRECO, where AQ Khan worked as a translator. His job offered him unlimited access to the technical information, which he was willing to steal and bring to Pakistan.
A line of communication was quickly opened between Khan and Islamabad. When he arrived in Pakistan in 1975, his project had been already green-lit by Bhutto. He was given a research laboratory in Kahuta, on the edge of Azad Kashmir and a large budget. Over the next few years, Khan developed an international network of European businessmen and Pakistani spies, who bought components for his projects from all over Europe and the US, under false pretences, and smuggled them into Pakistan, violating dozens of international laws. Meanwhile, a direct line was opened with China, which could supply them with the technology they were missing. For the next ten years, Khan oversaw the largest and most dangerous knowledge theft the world had known. His deadline to himself was of seven years – seven years to build the bomb. He will come very close to meeting this deadline.
These developments were seen in New Delhi with confused emotions. While India had tested its own nuclear bomb in 1974, it had been small device, with a yield less than half of what had been dropped over Nagasaki in 1945. In the aftermath of the test, under severe pressure from other countries and anti-nuclear sections of Indian politics, Mrs. Gandhi had dithered and cancelled subsequent tests. The Indian nuclear weaponization programme had essentially gone into limbo. It was the worst of both worlds, as one official had noted. India did not have the nuclear weapon, but still faced all the economic and technological sanctions that came with the test.
By the time Morarji Desai became the Prime Minister in 1977, the Indian strategic community was growing apprehensive about Pakistani nuclear activities. In December 1978, the Joint Intelligence Committee sent alarm bells up the chain of command, claiming Pakistan was close to a nuclear bomb. Soon after, convinced of Pakistan’s advances in that direction, Lt. Gen. Sundarji of the Indian Army published a war-gaming manual that assumed a Pakistani nuclear bomb.
But at the helm of the government was Desai, a man who considered nuclear bomb a waste of money and resources and an unnecessary provocation to the Pakistanis. He was confident that the Indian Military could take on even a nuclear-Pakistan with conventional weapons. While the strategic lobby was pushing for a response to the Pakistani advances, Desai was working to undercut them. Following the 1978 intelligence assessment, the Cabinet had met on the issue where it was decided that India should revive its own weaponization programme, a decision carried by a vote of 3 to 2. The two against were Desai and, ironically, the Foreign Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. However, the Cabinet decision was quickly nullified by Desai, who separately instructed the Atomic Energy Commission Chairman, Homi Sethna to disregard the Cabinet orders and not to do anything without his say. Parallel to it, Desai had also begun exploring a deal with the US to completely de-nuclearize India.
By 1979, Desai was out of the office, and the US deal with him. When Indira Gandhi returned to power in January 1980, there was expectation that India would again accelerate its weaponization programme. But, once-bitten-twice-shy Mrs. Gandhi was reluctant to go down that road again. Instead she considered a pre-emptive option, planning to bomb Khan’s Kahuta facility and put down the Pakistani nuclear menace for once and for all. In this she sought help from an unlikely ally – Israel.
Israel had been actively seeking to neutralize the threat of an Islamic bomb for a long time. In 1981, its Air Force had bombed the Iraqi nuclear reactor as a warning. It had also been worried about the Pakistani advances. In 1981, letter bombs were sent to Khan’s European suppliers, a classic tactic often employed by the Israeli Intelligence Agency, Mossad. For India, Israel seemed a natural ally.
In February 1983, a team of Indian experts flew to Tel Aviv, to exchange information with Israelis and to buy electronic warfare equipment to neutralize Pakistani air defence. In New Delhi, plans were developed for a quick, surgical strike at Kahuta Laboratory. The mission was supposed to be carried out amidst a large misdirection campaign all across the western border to distract the Pakistani Air Force, while select squadrons of Jaguar slip into the Pakistani airspace and bomb the facility. The plans were at their last stages when an unexpected turn laid them to rest. The United States, which had been gathering intelligence
about the mission for some time, informed Pakistani Government about them. The American White House had been covering up for Pakistan’s nuclear programme for many years. Pakistan was seen as an indispensable ally in the Cold War, especially since thousands of Afghan Mujahedeen were being trained and armed in Pakistan to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. In return, the US was providing Pakistan with billions of dollars in aid and turning a blind eye to its nuclear programme. A US law required the President to assure Congress that any country, being given aid to, did not have nuclear weapons. Jimmy Carter, and later, Ronald Reagan had been certifying that Pakistan was kosher every year, despite mountain of intelligence.
As part of their relationship with Islamabad, they had warned it of the imminent Indian strike. Pakistan immediately warned India that it will bomb Indian nuclear facility in Trombay unless Mrs. Gandhi backed off. Faced with a nuclear disaster on the doorstep of Bombay, India held its guns. Then, in 1984, Israel stepped in, offering to take out the Kahuta facility itself, using the Indian airbases for refuelling. This would have offered India a certain amount of deniability and political cover. Plans were again drawn out. This time a group of Israeli F-16s and F-15s were supposed to fly into Pakistan, hiding from its radar behind the Kashmiri Mountains and blow up the facility. But at the last minute, the US again intervened, threatening to come in the side of Pakistan. Indira Gandhi pulled the plug on the mission.
With the option of pre-emptive action gone, Mrs. Gandhi had no choice but to speed up its own weaponization programme. By this time, Pakistan had already developed the bomb. In the future, the two countries will be locked in a nuclear stand-off, first secretly and after 1998, openly. Meanwhile, the US continued to turn a blind eye to Pakistan’s activities, while Khan created the world’s largest network of illegal nuclear proliferation, selling the bomb to North Korea, Iran and Libya. Components were smuggled through business fronts in Dubai, while a factory in Malaysia churned out centrifuge components. AQ Khan made a public confession in 2004, but these illicit dealings, most likely, still continue, smuggling nuclear technology from Pakistan to other parts of the world.
Sources: Karnad, Bharat, Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy, Second Edition (New Delhi: McMillan, 2005); Levy, Adrian & Scott-Clark, Catherine, Deception: Pakistan, the United States and the Global Nuclear Weapons Conspiracy, (London: Atlantic Books, 2007)