Journey to the bomb: From Zulfikar Bhutto to Nawaz Sharif

May 28,2017

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Journey to making Pakistan a nuclear state was not easy, as successive rulers and governments faced and resisted all kinds of pressures and sanctions. And, at last, we became a nuclear state on May 28, 1998.

Founder of nuclear programme, former prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (ZAB) was made a ‘horrible’ example and executed, which many believe was linked to his bold decision on January 20, 1972 and refusal to abandon country’s nuclear programme.

The dream finally came true on this day, May 28, 1998 when another prime minister, Nawaz Sharif (NS), in his second tenure, took the most popular decision and Pakistan joined the nuclear club.

There is a general consensus in the country that Bhutto was the founder of the bomb, Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan was the father of the bomb. Then the credit goes to Nawaz Sharif, who finally took the decision to make Pakistan a powerful nuclear state, after India conducted its second nuclear test in the same month.

Pakistan twice waited for the US and the West to stop India from initiating an arms race in the region and creating a situation wherein Pakistan was left with no choice but to go for the tests. According to former foreign minister, Sahibzada Yaqub Khan (the late), “Had the US played a responsible role during India's first nuclear test and stopped India, the country would not have even heard the name of Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan.” The decision to launch Pakistan's nuclear programme was taken in Multan, at the residence of Nawab Sadiq Hussain Qureshi, when Bhutto called the meeting of country's eminent scientists. Dr Samar Mubarak Mand, who attended that historic meeting, once quoted Bhutto's remarks during the meeting. Bhutto said, "Faith placed him in a position where he could make decisions that would lead the country into a nuclear arms race."

In the same meeting, Bhutto asked the scientists, “Can we make the bomb?” After some pause, a junior scientists said: “Yes, we can." He then asked, “How many years will it take?”

The reply came, “Five years.” And Bhutto raised three fingers: “three years.”

"Yes, it can be done in three years,” the scientists replied.

Bhutto smiled and said, "This is a very serious political decision which Pakistan will make, and perhaps other third world countries will have to make one day." It was perhaps one of those decisions which Bhutto took at a time when the nation had not even recovered from 1971 tragedy of East Pakistan. But, many books written on this subject revealed that since the days Bhutto had entered Pakistani politics as a junior minister in Ayub Khan's cabinet in 1958, it was in his mind. He sent many junior scientists to US under the 'Atom for Peace’, programme in the 1960s to get training.

He finally came out more aggressively after 1965 war with India, when he said, “We will eat grass but will make bomb to make Pakistan strong.”

Many of his opponents at that time termed it a political stunt and statement, but years later when he became the prime minister he launched the program and wanted it to be completed in his tenure. But, events which unfolded resulted in massive US pressure, followed by serious warning to him from former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger, who came to Pakistan with a message of carrot or stick. When ZAB refused, he was made a 'horrible’ example.

The most unfortunate part was the event which followed after Kissinger's visit. Massive US pressure, threats, sanctions and political turmoil, which led to 1977 crisis. It’s a tragedy but the fact remains that the then military dictator, General Ziaul Haq signed the death warrant of the founder of Pakistan 's nuclear programme. Bhutto, was hanged on April 4, 1979, after a controversial murder trial.

The “Father of Pakistan's nuclear programme”, Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan, who was discovered by Bhutto, termed former prime minister a true nationalist. "I have never seen a nationalist like Bhutto,” he told the writer in a TV interview few years back. "I tried to save Bhutto's life and even visited some Islamic countries including Turkey, met its president to use their influence on Zia to commute his sentence as I knew Pakistan needed someone like him,” he added.

AQ Khan further said that the then Turkish President told him that he would call Zia, but also cautioned him (AQ) that Zia would not spare him.

Dr Qadeer said that Bhutto gave him powers like a PM, and that was exactly what he said when he met him and complained about certain hurdles from his bureaucracy. He called a meeting and told all those concerned: "I have given complete power to him as far as this programme is concerned. You just have to follow his instructions," AQ Khan quoted Bhutto as telling the senior most bureaucrats.

Making Pakistan a nuclear state, was a national decision since the day India conducted its first nuclear test and Pakistan got cold response from the US, which did not stop India nor impose that kind of sanctions which Pakistan faced.

In the aftermath of 1979, Iranian revolution and later Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, the US needed Pakistan. It not only lifted sanctions but also provided unprecedented support in the form of civil and military aid, for the ‘Afghan jihad’. It came like a blessing for Pakistan as during all this period Pakistan played a decisive role in “jihad-e-Afghanistan”.

Dr Qadeer said: “Bhutto's dream to make Pakistan nuclear came true in the 80s and he had even told Zia and later former president, the late Ghulam Ishaq Khan, that we are ready and just needed a green signal.”

But, it took Pakistan another 10 years, before it finally conducted the nuclear test after India's second test.

Nawaz Sharif, who was the prime minister, took the bold decision with complete backing of all stakeholders. He once told this writer that during his consultation with some of his colleagues, one voice which really encouraged him was that of Syed Mushahid Hussain Syed, who told him, “Mian Sahib, do it."

What former military ruler retired General Pervez Musharraf did with Dr AQ Khan was most unfortunate. Though, he himself defended his decision by saying, “It was taken in the national interest”, it did not go well and people generally were upset. What he did with Nawaz Sharif, from trial to conviction and from sentence to exile is also a matter of history.

As a state, Pakistan is the only Islamic nuclear state. But, today, our challenges are different and more serious i.e. internal threats like growing extremism, terrorism, ethnic and sectarian division. In the fight against terrorism, we have lost 70,000 people including 25,000 soldiers and officers. Pakistan has come a long way and is trying to change its narrative from the one damaged during General Zia's period and later due to bad policies of Gen Musharraf.

It’s time to learn few lessons that until and unless we become a strong economic power, and succeed in eliminating extremist narrative and change the mindset, our problems would persist as a nuclear nation. Let’s make Pakistan a strong nation, an economic power and all this is only possible if we defeat the mother of all ills, extremism.

The writer is a senior columnist and analyst of Geo, The News and Jang

Twitter: MazharAbbasGEO


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