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Maleeha Lodhi is a former Pakistani envoy to the US and UK.

‘We’ll eat grass but build the bomb’

Feroz Khan’s book tells the story of Pakistan’s quest for a nuclear bomb and the challenges it faced to acquire it.

he title of the first book that chronicles Pakistan's nuclear history, Eating Grass: The Making of the Pakistani Bomb, comes from a remark by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, architect of the country's atomic programme. In an interview with the Manchester Guardian in 1965, he said if India built the bomb, "we will eat grass, even go hungry, but we will get one of our own." Brig (Retd) Feroz Khan's soon-to-be published book tells the riveting story of the country's quest for a nuclear capability and the challenges it faced to acquire this.

Khan doesn't avoid dealing with what he characterises as the "darkest chapter of the country's nuclear history" when the A.Q. Khan proliferation network was uncovered. The chapter devoted to this explains how a man revered by his compatriots turned a procurement network used to advance Pakistan's nuclear programme into an export enterprise that brought the country infamy from which it is still to recover. Although the chapter brings new facts to light, they are no more shocking than the network's discovery in 2004. They mainly pertain to how A.Q. Khan used the Prime Minister's Office to write to the ruler of another country in pursuit of proliferation activities.

The book's central concern is to explain how and why Pakistan surmounted numerous obstacles to master the nuclear fuel cycle, pursuing both the uranium enrichment and plutonium route, especially after 1974 when the international nonproliferation regime tried to stop and punish Pakistan for India's nuclear explosion. The book's core thesis is that the more the US-led international community pressured, sanctioned and denied Pakistan access to technology, the more this galvanised national resolve and accelerated the programme.

In demystifying this quest Khan explodes several myths popularised by outsiders especially about the programme being "stolen" from the West or "enabled" by China. This he says trivialises the indigenous contribution of Pakistan's scientists. Technical help from China was only sought when there was an impasse. He credits the acquisition of nuclear capability not to one person but to the collective determination of hundreds of people in the civil-military establishment, but above all, the scientific community who believed in achieving nuclear self-sufficiency.

This pursuit was backed by a rare national consensus. This survived changes of government and domestic turmoil. Khan also describes the epic rivalry between two key nuclear institutions: the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission and what later became Khan Research Laboratories. While professional jealousy slowed the nuclear endeavour, it also spurred innovation that produced eventual success. Some leaders even encouraged the "clash of the Khans" — A.Q. and Munir Ahmed Khan, who headed the PAEC.

In tracking the early history, the author casts Ayub Khan as a cautious leader who kept the programme focused on peaceful pursuits and tried to curb the ambition of the nuclear lobby led by Bhutto, Agha Shahi and Aziz Ahmed. The split between these two camps "drove Pakistan's policy choices". The rise and fall of Ayub and Bhutto and two top scientists, Dr Abdus Salam and Dr Ishrat Usmani determined the nuclear journey.

1971 and the "never again" paradigm that emerged after defeat and dismemberment proved pivotal in the decision to build the bomb. "Pakistan's humiliation would lay the foundation for a shift in the once peaceful nature of the nuclear programme," writes Khan. The 1971 debacle and India's 1974 nuclear test turned a minority viewpoint into consensus on the imperative of acquiring nuclear weapons. The more India's nuclear activities were internationally tolerated the greater was Pakistan's sense of discrimination. What ultimately determined nuclear success was the cadre of scientists and engineers whose talent was tapped in the early years and who were motivated by the resolve not to let India's strategic advances go "unanswered".

An aspect of the programme's early history revealed in the book is how little the military initially had to do with it. The author depicts GHQ as a later convert to the nuclear idea, with 1974 becoming the defining moment. It was Ghulam Ishaq Khan who was "by far the greatest silent patron and contributor" to Pakistan's nuclear programme. When the 1993 political crisis culminated in the removal of the Prime Minister and President, on his last day in office GIK reluctantly handed over all nuclear-related documents to the new Chief of Army Staff General Abdul Waheed Kakar. This marked the first time the army assumed responsibility for the nuclear programme.

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