Tracing the origins of Pakistan’s N-ambition and a scientist’s role

by Dinakar Peri

Since the summer of 1998 when India and Pakistan went nuclear and forever changed the conventional and strategic equilibrium in South Asia, much has been written over the years about Pakistan’s nuclear weapon program and A.Q. Khan’s clandestine global proliferation network. But few probably have gone into the issue in such detail as Hassan Abbas’s new book.

It traces the origins of Pakistan’s nuclear ambition for the purpose of balancing India, countering the West and for prestige on the world stage right from the formative stages of its Independence. It builds on from the days of freedom struggle with the Muslim League led by Muhammad Ali Jinnah initially pushing for greater say for Muslims which eventually metamorphosed into the demand for a separate nation.

The book traces the genesis and the transition of the Pakistani nation and how various phases contributed to the security apprehension and laid the ground for possessing nuclear weapons.

While following the proliferation trail of Pakistan’s nuclear program, the book tries to answer several questions. Why did A.Q. Khan resort to this? Was he working alone or did the state back him? For instance, Abbas uses two schools of deterrence theory — deterrence optimists and proliferation pessimists — to build a broad theoretical framework in understanding the issue, applying Professor Graham Allison’s ‘Bureaucratic Politics’ model to understand Khan’s network.

The book acknowledges the lingering questions on the control and safety of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and the possibility of them falling into the wrong hands due to “recurrent political instability and strengthening crime-terror nexus” and fears over U.S. policy but goes on to say that Pakistan has learnt some important lessons “the hard way.”

The study dismisses the assertion by Pakistan that the proliferation ring was the handiwork of one man and concludes that Khan helped Iran and North Korea with the backing of the military establishment but left the civil administration in the dark. However, with Libya, Khan was on his own. Hassan states that Khan’s “phobia” that the U.S. and Israel would target Pakistani nuclear arsenal and his individual agenda to help more Muslim countries gain the nuclear bomb were reasons for him to continue proliferation on his own accord at a later stage. In this mix, the role of China and Saudi Arabia in helping Pakistan is also discussed.

With conflicts on the rise, there is an increasing possibility of more and more nations and even non-state actors attempting to acquire nuclear weapons. To that end, some of the findings and observations of this book would give important indicators in understanding how the proliferation networks work and hopefully work as a deterrent.

Pakistan’s Nuclear Bomb: A Story of Defiance, Deterrence and Deviance; Hassan Abbas, Penguin Random House, ₹699