Twenty-two years ago, Muhammad Arshad chanted Allahu Akbar and pushed the button. It took a nerve-racking 30 seconds before the mountain turned white. Pakistan’s nuclear tests were successful. This was the culmination of a long arduous Pakistani quest for a nuclear weapon.
Scott Sagan in his magnum opus ‘Why Do States Build Nuclear Weapons? Three Models in Search of a Bomb’ has identified different factors that lead a state to build nuclear weapons: national security concern is one of these reasons: Pakistan is a classic case for this model. Pakistan’s nuclear history can be divided into two phases: 1947-1972 when Pakistan had a peaceful nuclear programme, whereas in the post 1972 due to national security concerns in the wake of the east Pakistan debacle, Pakistan started exploring options for building a bomb that got intensified after India’s nuclear test in 1974.
In the first phase, four personalities played the most significant role and established the programme on firm footing: Dr Rafi Mohammad Chaudhry of Government College Lahore, (now Government College University – GCU), Pakistan’s only Nobel laureate Professor Abdus Salam and Dr Nazir Ahmed who was the first chairman of Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC). These three laid a solid foundation by training the manpower, and setting institutional priorities. Pakistan also benefited from the American Atom for Peace program. During this phase, the programme was focused on peaceful use of atomic energy.
The fourth was Dr Ishrat Hussain Usmani who was appointed Chairman of PAEC by President Ayub Khan on the recommendation of Dr Abdus Salam. According to Feroz Hasan Khan: “PAEC chairman Usmani laid down three objectives: to construct nuclear power plants and so alleviate the shortage of conventional energy sources; to apply nuclear knowledge (radioisotopes) to agriculture, medicine, and industry; and to conduct research and development on problems of national importance.” (Eating Grass, Stanford University Press, p50) Dr Usamani is credited to have laid down the foundation of the Pakistan Institute of Nuclear Science and Technology (PINSTECH), a world renowned education and training centre.
During this phase, the focus was on the peaceful use of nuclear energy and even if there was a voice in favour of building one, it lacked any major support and was mostly muffled. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and Munir Ahmed Khan were among the bigger supporters of going for this option.
The second phase of Pakistan’s nuclear programme began with Bhutto taking over the helm of affairs in Islamabad. In 1972, Bhutto held a meeting with key officials in Multan and ordered them to build a nuclear bomb. He appointed his friend and fellow member of the so-called bomb lobby, Munir Ahmed Khan the new chairman of PAEC. This meeting set the future direction of Pakistan’s nuclear programme. After the Indian nuclear explosion in 1974, Pakistan’s own quest for nuclear weapons began in earnest. Despite this, Pakistan offered several arms control measures to India but India rejected all of them on the pretext that they have to take their security concerns about China into account as well.
PAEC under Munir Ahmed Khan’s leadership worked hard towards achieving their goal. This effort was further intensified when Dr. A. Q. Khan joined the effort. Despite the political change in the country, the nuclear quest continued and General Zia continued it despite tremendous pressure from the international community especially when he was fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan as a frontline state. According to media reports, in 1987, he signalled that Pakistan had achieved the capability to make a nuclear weapon. Despite achieving the capability, Pakistan neither expressed nor demonstrated its capability as Pakistan built the bomb only to ensure its national security. Had the situation remained ambiguous and India not conducted another series of tests, the likelihood of Pakistan conducting overt tests was extremely remote.
To fulfil its electoral promise, the BJP government tested its nuclear devices Shakti I, II and III on May 11, 1998 followed by two more on May 13. This rang alarm bells in Islamabad. Then Prime minister of Pakistan Nawaz Sharif cut short his state visit to Uzbekistan and rushed back to Islamabad. Immediately after his return, he summoned a meeting of the Defence Committee of the Cabinet (DCC). In this meeting, Dr Samar Mubarakmand assured the Prime Minister that PAEC needs only ten days to prepare and conduct the tests. Once again, the Indians caught the global power centres napping as neither of them were able to stop the Indian tests. Once again, the international community, instead of addressing the root cause, started pressuring Pakistan not to conduct its tests. Despite Islamabad’s declaring the Indian tests a “death blow to the global efforts at nuclear non-proliferation” the Americans were more focused on convincing Islamabad to abstain from responding. The Talbot mission delivered a sermon to the Pakistani leadership about what is best for Pakistan and the Pakistani people, but were not willing to pay any heed to Pakistan’s security concerns.
After intense and extensive debate, and also due to the inability of the international power centres especially USA to objectively engage and address Pakistan’s concerns and the statements emanating from India, the Defence Committee of the Cabinet decided to conduct the nuclear test. Once given the go ahead, the PAEC team, under the leadership of Dr Samar Mubarakmand, prepared the testing site and conducted the test. In total six successful tests were conducted by Pakistan on 28 and 30 May 1998.