A heavily biased political narrative, shorn of introspection or criticism, reading like the official Pakistani line, and a laboured attempt to exonerate the army.
Pakistan’s Nuclear Bomb: A Story Of Defiance, Deterrence And Deviance, Hassan Abbas, Allen Lane India, 296 Pages
Hassan Abbas’ book is the latest in a very limited genre dealing with this subject. The subject itself — Pakistani nuclear proliferation — is something restricted either to people who are deeply into the topic, or the somewhat larger mass of people who consider themselves a bit more informed by virtue of watching/reading news other than the Kim Kardashian/Taimur Khan antics. The problem is that for the experts, this book falls far short of expectations — at best serving as a compendium of differing views. For the generically interested, it is too detailed, but mostly irrelevant, unfocussed detail, like a Wikipedia entry on “Pakistan and weapons of mass destruction”.
Sniggers about Wikipedia aside, one does need to acknowledge that the website is an excellent starting-off point for newcomers. This book too would have been just such, an excellent Wikipedia entry, save for two serious issues: a heavily biased political narrative, shorn of introspection, criticism or indeed depth, reading like the official Pakistani line, and second, the belaboured attempt to exonerate the army.
Of course, the author does disagree a few times with the Pakistani line. For example, he corrects the discourse about Bangladesh’s creation in 1971 being an Indian conspiracy, pointing out that Pakistan’s political system had done more than enough to alienate East Pakistan. However, he still refers to “serious human rights violations” as opposed to what it was: ethnic cleansing and wanton genocide. The political narrative then is not a scholarly exposition, rather a propagandistic one, with some serious contradictions obvious throughout, precisely because of an ad hoc approach to contextualise the narrative as and when it suits the author.
We are treated to the same historically unsustainable tropes of a “secular” Muhammad Ali Jinnah and how Kashmir ignited the dispute. He then bizarrely goes on to absolve Jinnah of everything from the Islamisation of Pakistan to the garrison state mentality and the civil-military imbalance. Historian Venkat Dhulipala has proven through copious documentary evidence that the trajectory of an “Islamic Pakistan” is exactly what Jinnah wanted and was achieved by successive governments after his death, because and not in spite of his wishes. Obviously, as Dhulipala’s work does not suit the agenda, it is “strategically” omitted from the bibliography, making the claim that this is a compendium of differing points of view, which is quite laughable.
Equally ignored is Jinnah’s choice of role — governor-general, augmented by voting himself more powers to override the cabinet, over and above what the British had conferred on the post. These same reserve powers led to the Australian constitutional crisis of 1975 and the dismissal of the Gough Whitlam government. In Pakistan’s case, during the pre-Ayub Khan instability, the thorough use/abuse of these reserve powers decisively shifted the equilibrium towards the military, unchecked precisely because Jinnah had removed any possible checks. And yet, despite being the legal and constitutional origin of every single malaise that affects Pakistan, Jinnah in Abbas’ narrative is a holy cow, not to be touched by critical or factual analysis, mere hagiography.
This worrying trend of half-truths and selective interventions continues into the Kashmir dispute — we are led to believe that Kashmir, which caused 7,000 to 10,000 fatalities, was more important than Partition, that resulted in the death of a million people and the migration of 10 million more. This severe cause-effect confusion (deliberate?) continues with more half-facts about United Nations (UN) resolutions, which as political scientist Christine Fair has pointed out, nobody bothers to read and the author assiduously avoids quoting. Moreover, the author also seems to have not read Srinath Raghavan’s exploration of this period, showing that Pakistan was just as opposed to the implementation of the UN resolutions and any referendum at that point, save in areas not under its control.
But there again we are treated to a carefully curated set of random facts chosen to buttress a narrative. The deeply inflammatory role of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto nudging Pakistan both to war in 1965 and towards denying Sheikh Mujibur Rehman his mandate in 1971 is either underplayed or ignored, despite Bhutto admitting to Pakistani author Tariq Ali that he deliberately provoked those wars as “there was no other way to get rid of the military”. Again one wonders, what exactly is Abbas’ game here?
The question then is why does this matter so much in a book where only the first chapter is about politics, and the other 200-odd pages are about the nuclear bomb. It matters because this selective fact quoting continues for much of the book, resting as it does on a heavily distorted narrative that tries to pass off intent and deliberation as passive reaction and unintended consequence. This narrative becomes particularly important in absolving the army from the latter stages of nuclear proliferation conducted by the A Q Khan network.
There is nothing in the chapter tracing the evolution of the Pakistani nuclear programme that is not already available in Brigadier Feroze Khan’s book Eating Grass — a far more comprehensive history. The problem also is that the narrative is far less nuanced or contextualised. One particularly curious device used is to show how Pakistan was “provoked” by India. The military threat and the defeat of 1971 definitely constitute a tangible incentive for Pakistan to go nuclear, but while Feroze Khan’s definition of Indian provocation is extremely nuanced, making a distinction between what was interpreted by Pakistan and what was used for rhetorical effect, Abbas makes no such distinction. As such, he adds nothing of scholarly value factually or analytically. Fatally, of all people and all the periods of time to quote to prove “Indian provocation”, he uses I K Gurjal. In March 1998, by this time a lame duck (assuming he wasn’t for most of his career), Gujral told a Pugwash delegation that he had intelligence that Pakistan could not make the bomb. Anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of history would have known that Gujral had no value for intelligence, and gravely eroded Indian capabilities in this field. Yet we are supposed to believe that things work like clockwork in India and this was part of a grand plan to get Pakistan to come out of the nuclear closet, taken to the next step by Gujral’s successor Atal Behari Vajpayee, as opposed to wishful thinking bereft of intelligence inputs that Gurjal was notorious for. Pakistan on the other hand is always the victim of circumstances. This is something of a running theme through the book.
Next we move to Pakistani inward and outward proliferation detailed over three chapters: Iran, Libya and North Korea. The chapter on Iran starts off with an excruciatingly shallow exploration of cultural “linkages”. Of course, what role over-the-top Farsi poetry and a shared Persianate-Turkic history has to do with nuclear proliferation is never suitably explained. There are also painful inaccuracies regarding Iranian immigrants to Persianised North India from the 11th century onwards as “Shia”, given that any history of Iran would show that it was overwhelmingly Sunni, until the forced and brutal conversion of the Safavids starting in the 1500s. When one gets to Libya and North Korea, one wonders what is the point of the entirely futile political history of Pakistan-Iran ties — especially the cultural — serves, unless of course, unbeknownst to us, North Korea was at some point a powerhouse of Farsi literature.
Snark aside, these three chapters and the one that follows it about the religious beliefs of A Q Khan form the only real strengths of this book. Essentially, if this book had begun and ended here, it would have been a decent 70-100 pager. All major developments with regard to Pakistani proliferation to these three countries are described and it is a fairly valuable compendium. The problem is the lack of context or macro narrative, sometimes just being a bland chronological listing of events, that leaves the reader wondering “where is this going”? The author does not start with a hypothesis and back it up, but again, that is probably a good thing, given how the political hypotheses in the earlier chapters were selectively backed up.
The chapters covering A Q Khan’s personal religious and financial motivations are unusually titillating, progressing towards a slow and menacing radicalisation of Khan Research Laboratories, where a majority of scientists held rather alarming political and religious views and were consumed by anti-Western conspiracy theories. Particularly noteworthy is the case of Bashiruddin Mehmood and Chaudhury Abdul Majeed, two scientists convicted of passing nuclear secrets to the Al Qaeda. This is particularly worrying as Mehmood was awarded the Sitara-e-Imtiyaz despite being declared dangerous and untrustworthy by Pakistani intelligence. Obviously, no conclusions are drawn of this strange “coincidence”. The following chapter on political instability, civil-military relations and the problem of loose controls over nuclear assets, is a largely incoherent narrative covering subjects that would have benefitted from far more depth of both facts and analysis and a better structure.
A cursory explanation of Pakistan’s alliances also seems to avoid detailed and heavily documented explorations of this subject by Dennis Kux and Hussain Haqqani about how Pakistan was simply not interested in involving itself in the conflicts of others, and was almost as “non-aligned” for much of its history as India was, despite rhetoric to the contrary. If anything, the cursory glance at Saudi-Pakistan cooperation only proves this point. However, what remains to be answered is how any of this alliance logic is relevant to the Pakistani bomb.
Finally we get to the conclusion, the crux of which is that Pakistani proliferation happened in three stages: mostly inward proliferation, and some outward proliferation up to around 1987 on behalf of the Pakistani state; A Q Khan indulging in outward proliferation as a representative of the government of Pakistan at least up to 1997 in sync with the vision of chief of army staff (COAS) Mirza Aslam Beg and President Ghulam Ishaq Khan; and finally as a free radical from the period of COAS Jehangir Karamat onwards. The case being made here is that given the increasing complexity and siloisation of the Pakistani nuclear programme, as well as a disconnect between the worldview of generals before Beg and after Karamat, A Q Khan was able to do so. Tactically, this is indeed possible, but strategically this is impossible, given that this is a corollary argument to what Pakistan gives the world on its nurturing of terrorists.
Ultimately, this book is concisely summed up by Pakistani scholar Ayesha Siddiqa as a “defence of the military”. There is nothing here for serious nuclear scholars, and is too heavily distorted, meandering and aimless without macro narratives. There are unnecessary political detours that serve no purpose and bring no clarity, and full of conclusions not supported by the micro detail. If one considers this assessment unfair, then all one has to do is observe the one word not mentioned in the previous 2,000 words of this review: China. How is it that a book on Pakistan’s nuclear bomb almost entirely omits the single biggest influence on Pakistan’s nuclear programme?