In assessing the contribution to Pakistan by former prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, it cannot be disputed that nuclear deterrence is the key strategic factor safeguarding Pakistan’s national security and that Mr Bhutto was the architect and prime mover towards the attainment of this capability.
Pakistan was faced by a paucity of scientists, facilities and, most of all, poverty of vision, compared to India. The Pakistan Atomic Energy Council, the forerunner of the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC), predated Mr Bhutto’s induction as minister of energy in 1958, after which the development of the nuclear infrastructure became a key focus. The PAEC could rely on his support for funding. The establishment of the Pakistan Institute of Nuclear Science and Technology, the Pakistan Atomic Research Reactor under the US Atoms for Peace programme, and the contract for Pakistan’s first power reactor KANUPP owed much to his support.
In his 1967 book, The Myth of Independence, Mr Bhutto correctly assessed that India appeared determined to proceed with its plans to detonate a nuclear bomb, and that Pakistan must therefore embark on a similar programme. The 1971 war reinforced Bhutto’s conviction that Pakistan must have nuclear capability. He chose Dr Munir Ahmad Khan to take over the PAEC and, a few years later, Dr AQ Khan to set up a centrifuge plant, the cutting-edge technology of which was assessed by the West as beyond implementation by any developing country. Meanwhile, Dr Abdus Salaam continued as scientific adviser.
With trained manpower available, Dr Munir Ahmad indigenised capacity building and also started a number of infrastructural (nuclear fuel cycle-related) projects as well. These complemented the centrifuge programme and also helped run KANUPP. The latter became necessary following India’s testing of its nuclear weapons in 1974, because that led to Canada stopping fuel supplies altogether.
The centrifuge programme provided the enriched uranium which, by the early 80s, gave Pakistan nuclear capability. Of course, leaders depend on reliable professional advice. There were some blind spots. The safeguards on KANUPP depended on an agreement between Pakistan and supplier Canada and this would have lapsed within six months of the agreement’s abrogation. Pakistan had every right to do this when Canada stopped its fuel supplies. Had that been done, an early start to the plutonium route could have been taken. In the absence of such a move, the PAEC should have started work on an indigenous dedicated reactor earlier, rather than waiting 15 years.
Mr Bhutto’s main achievement in the nuclear field was to set the scientific community the specific task of making Pakistan a nuclear power and to appoint managers and allocate resources to proceed in that direction. The centrality of his vision has been substantiated by the fact that every successive government has further developed Pakistan’s nuclear programme and resisted efforts by foreign powers to restrict this capability. The recognition that our nuclear deterrent capability is vital for Pakistan’s defence and place in the world has become a unifying consensus in the country.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 19th, 2011.