Retaking bomb project
By Cyril Almeida, Dawn, April 23, 2008
THE holy grail of civilian supremacy is control of the country’s nuclear programme, a sphere of national policy so secret that no prime minister since Zulfikar Ali Bhutto has had any input of substance.
That is why Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani’s statement that he is satisfied with the command and control structure of the country’s nuclear structure must be met with some scepticism — not because of the ‘safeness’ of that structure, but because civilian control is virtually non-existent.
Since Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto presided over the fateful Multan conference held under a shamiana in 1972, Pakistan’s quest to join the nuclear club has been shrouded in secrecy — national interest dictating that the veil be lifted only fleetingly. Chagai-I and the A.Q. Khan fiasco ripped the curtain and ever since a profusion of literature on Pakistan’s nuclear programme has rendered the history of our bomb reasonably well-known.
One of the themes of that history is the extent to which the military-bureaucratic alliance sidelined civilian politicians. Prime Ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif have been vocal about this in the past. But in candid interviews with Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark, the authors of Deception: Pakistan, the United States, and the Secret Trade in Nuclear Weapons, a book about covert US support for Pakistan’s nuclear programme, the two have spoken out about the extent to which they were marginalised.
Interviewed by the authors of the book in 2006, Bhutto recalled the terror with which she regarded the formidable duo of Gen Beg and President Ishaq Khan. Such was Bhutto’s fear of the men that the young prime minister asked the US ambassador to accompany her to the first meeting with her nemeses. As Ambassador Oakley recalled: “She was scared stiff and they made it crystal clear that she would only be allowed to serve if she agreed not to meddle with the army, stayed out of Afghanistan, and kept out of the nuclear issue.”
When a weak but determined Bhutto tried to fight her way to the nuclear table, telephoning A.Q. Khan and other scientists and reminding them it was her father who had recruited them, she was rebuffed. Khan only agreed to meet the prime minister in the presence of President Ishaq Khan.
According to Bhutto, it was this meeting which led to the creation of the infamous troika: “Eventually it was agreed that the prime minister had to have a role in the nuclear programme. We created ‘the troika’ — Ishaq Khan, General Beg and myself would create a Nuclear Command Authority.” Even this nominal concession to the prime minister was contemptuously dismissed by Gen Beg, who told the authors that it was nothing more than a sop to the US on the eve of a trip to Washington.
Benazir Bhutto’s recollection of another meeting with President Ishaq Khan is also instructive: “I said, ‘I need to know about the aid money that will come in this year. How is it being spent?’ He said, ‘I am not telling you. It’s a nuclear issue. You need to know nothing.’”
The Pakistani establishment was not the only one treating Bhutto with condescension. The US ambassador got in on the act, too. With nuclear-armed India and Pakistan edging towards war over the Kashmir insurgency in 1990, Benazir recalled a conversation with Ambassador Oakley: “He told me the whole thing had gone mad. He was worried. Really worried. He said, ‘Sit tight and I’ll get back to you.’”
Bhutto was not even informed of a secret trip to Pakistan by Robert Gates, the deputy national security adviser, to warn Beg and Ishaq Khan of the consequences of war. Bhutto, who was away on a foreign tour, recalled: “I only learned what was happening because Oakley told me. But even he said everything was being taken care of and so I stayed away.”
As the establishment’s hand-picked man, Nawaz Sharif was expected to stay out of the army’s business. Yet he fared little better. Sharif recalled how he, Ishaq Dar and Chaudhry Nisar Ali were approached by Gen Beg with a plan to tide over Pakistan’s economic problems and subsidise the military budget: sell nuclear technology to Iran for $12bn. He said: “Beg was insistent. I realised then we had to change the way that power worked in Pakistan, to break the stranglehold that kept the politicians on a military leash.”
Sharif and Bhutto undoubtedly have good reason to blame the military for everything; however, the similarities in their stories of the nuclear establishment are uncanny. The basic theme: shut up, keep your head down and do as you are told.
Yet Bhutto and Sharif are far from blameless. It’s one thing to condemn a cabal of mad mullahs, generals and civil servants for nuclear adventurism. It’s quite another to have governed the way they did, knowing what was at stake.
Distracting themselves and the country with petty politics, settling scores and corruption only reinforced the secretiveness of the nuclear establishment. The prime ministers may have proven masters of survival in the cut-throat world of Pakistani politics, but it’s hard to feel much sympathy for either.
In the meanwhile, the loftiest in the military-bureaucratic axis seem to regard our nuclear weapons as a saleable commodity. The economy is in trouble, sell the technology. The Kashmir insurgency needs to be financed, sell the technology. The cavalier attitude towards the sale of nuclear technology — though not necessarily the bomb itself — is terrifying.
Things have undoubtedly changed since the anxious days of the previous decades. The reckless and the religious ideologues in the nuclear establishment have been weeded out and the controls of the nuclear programme tightened.
Prime Minister Gilani’s visit to the Strategic Plans Division (SPD), however, was a reminder that the final — and most difficult — step remains far from reality. On paper, the SPD is subordinate to the National Command Authority, which is charged with formulating nuclear policy and whose vice-chairman is the prime minister. In reality, the SPD is run by the same lieutenant-general — now retired — since its inception in 2000. By all accounts the SPD is a sophisticated, professional body and Director-General Kidwai was widely hailed following a presentation he gave to journalists on Pakistan’s command and control structure last January.
But safe hands do not make for civilian control. Given the experiences of Bhutto and Sharif and eight years of quasi-civilian rule, the extent to which the prime minister — a surrogate leader of his own party — was briefed is questionable. Indeed, years from now a retired or sidelined Gilani may reveal to journalists that the presentation given to him was no different to the one they received.