In perhaps the most succinct summary of Pakistani politicians’ rhetoric over nuclear weapons, a US embassy cable sent out in 1998 stated: “Pakistanis have always preferred talking about eating grass (in pursuit of national security) rather than actually having to eat it.”
The ‘eat grass’ statements – used by former prime ministers Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif – have been used to assure Pakistanis that austerity measures would be adopted but ‘national security’ would not be compromised.
The cables sent out in mid-1998, and released by WikiLeaks, highlight the state of affairs in Pakistan and US concerns over the testing of nuclear weapons by then-prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s government in response to India’s tests in early May. They also detail conversations with then-opposition leader and the late former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, and US pressure for the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) to oppose the tit-for-tat rhetoric adopted by religious and political parties in the wake of the Indian tests.
US diplomats assessed that opposition parties were using Sharif’s hesitation in responding to the Indian tests to advance their own political agendas and demand that Pakistan respond. However, despite private assurances to the US that the PPP had dropped the demand for a nuclear test, Benazir Bhutto publicly stated that a test was necessary to “keep India at bay and revitalise the struggle in Kashmir”.
When questioned by American officials over her public statements, Bhutto said that the time for the test had passed and it would have a disastrous impact on Pakistan’s economy and international reputation. However, Bhutto said that, “I cannot say these things publicly, but neither will I call for a detonation.”
The US also spoke to PPP leaders to convince Bhutto to soften her stance and cautioned Bhutto that her reaction to India’s tests had been criticised in the west. Officials suggested that the PPP publicly state that the issue of tests was too important to be used as a “political football”.
According to a May 25, 1998 cable, Bhutto told US officials that the party would focus its criticism on the state of governance instead. According to Benazir, there was resentment in the military’s lower ranks over Sharif’s lack of response (by then) to India and said, “I’m afraid Nawaz may eventually have to be sacrificed to heal that sense of shame, but it’s hard to imagine who might take his place.”
Bhutto also repeated her famous quip which she had made in a rally, “Nawaz is trying to put handcuffs on me. But I’m going to put bangles on him.” However, the cable notes that Bhutto mocking Sharif’s manhood “may prove a powerful catalyst towards the nuclear test that she now claims to oppose.”
Published in The Express Tribune, September 3rd, 2011.