This day, 14 years ago, emotionally charged voices of a team of scientists, who conducted the nuclear test in Chagi, chanted “Naara-e-Takbeer, Allah-o-Akbar.” This was a declaration that henceforth Pakistan is a declared nuclear weapon capable state. The resource-starved Pakistan had no ambition to go nuclear, but was compelled to do so.
Already faced with India’s overwhelming conventional military superiority, Pakistan was indeed pushed against the wall and left with no other choice, but to develop a matching nuclear deterrent to ward off future Indian threats. Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto declared: “Pakistanis will eat grass, but make a nuclear bomb.” Pakistan’s need for nuclearisation was essentially security driven. The nation joyfully ate grass and gleefully made the bomb!
After Kashmir, the nuclear issue emerged as a core national interest with complete unanimity of views among the public, establishment, leftists, rightists, centrists and in government circles; they were all on the same frequency, not a voice of dissent was ever heard during those difficult times. Economic sanctions and physical threat for the destruction of nuclear facilities only strengthened the national resolve.
Henry Kissinger personally conveyed to a defiant Bhutto the American threat: “Give up your nuclear programme or else we will make a horrible example of you.” And, thus a horrible example was made of Bhutto for his defiance. As the dust settled and reality replaced the myth, Bhutto re-emerged as probably the most revered national figure after Quaid-i-Azam and Quaid-i-Millat.
The possession of nuclear weapons served the intended purpose; India has ever since been kept at bay despite temptations for military adventurism.
The West’s attitude towards Pakistan’s nuclear programme was outrightly discriminatory; it attached a religious shade to Pakistan’s bomb by calling it an “Islamic bomb”. Earlier, one had never heard of a Christian, a Communist, a Jewish or a Hindu bomb. The approach was myopic; rhetoric was a smokescreen to portray Islam as a synonym of aggression and mobilise support from vested interests to demonise Pakistan’s legitimate necessity.
A resilient nation was pitched against the pressures of all sorts; however, it withstood all that with grace and tenacity and acquired the matching capability by the mid-eighties. Dr Munir Ahmad Khan, former PAEC Chairman, told AFP that Pakistan has had a nuclear capability since 1984. It was a weapon in the basement, yet to be showcased through a practical demonstration. And then came the God-sent opportunity.
On May 11, 1998, Indian Prime Minister Vajpayee stunned the world by announcing that India had conducted three nuclear tests. Two days later, two additional tests were carried out. Dr Samar Mubarakmand gave a technical assessment of India's tests on behalf of the PAEC. He opined that there had been only one successful test on May 11, and if a thermonuclear device had been fired, then it had been a failure. The assessment was resoundingly accurate; the Indian nuclear fraternity has conceded the reality after a decade.
On May 28, 1998, Pakistan conducted its first nuclear test. The time has been termed as "Pakistan's Finest Hour".
Needless to say that the moments between May 11 to 28 witnessed interesting events. The then Prime Minister, Mian Nawaz Sharif, recently narrated that during this period he consulted almost everybody for opinion and in the process when he sought Mr Majid Nizami’s views, the reply he received was stunning. Mr Nizami had told him point blank that if he did not go ahead for a matching response, the people of Pakistan would shred him into mince. Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto advocated not only an immediate nuclear test by Pakistan, but also asserted that India should be disarmed by a pre-emptive attack. The Chairman of the PAEC was given a go ahead. "Dhamaka kar dein" (Conduct the explosion) were the exact words used by the Prime Minister to inform him of the decision.
During this period, the Indian approach was a mixture of arrogance, confusion and foolhardiness. At one time, there arose a high probability of Indian air strikes over Chagi to destroy the site prior to test. The Pakistan Air Force (PAF) reacted with lightening speed and created a protective umbrella over the test site. Dr Mubarakmand, who was the team leader at the testing site, once narrated that while the PAF was in the process of doing its rapid deployments, the then Air Chief’s request was conveyed to him that the scientists should suspend the preparations for a couple of hours and vacate the site for their personal safety till its protective air cover was effectively in place.
The entire team unanimously declined to leave the site and volunteered to continue the preparations. They, indeed, deserve national salute for their courage. The extreme tension prevailing at the time of the tests is confirmed by the fact that even five hours after the Prime Minister’s announcement of the tests, Pakistan summoned the Indian High Commissioner to the Foreign Office and informed him that "credible information" had been received that an attack was to be mounted before dawn on Pakistan's nuclear installations by India, and that "swift and massive retaliation" would result. The Ambassador was asked to convey to New Delhi that Islamabad "expected the Indian government to desist from any irresponsible act."
Excerpts from the Prime Minister’s speech on May 28, 1998, amply explain the circumstances leading to Pakistan’s nuclearisation. He said: "Pakistan today successfully conducted five nuclear tests…….I congratulate all Pakistani scientists, engineers and technicians for their dedicated team work and expertise in mastering complex and advanced technologies…….Our security, and the peace and stability of the entire region, was gravely threatened. As any self-respecting nation, we had no choice left for us. Our hand was forced by the present Indian leadership's reckless actions. We could not ignore the magnitude of the threat.......Our decision to exercise the nuclear option has been taken in the interest of national self-defence……."
The US-led lobby has not yet reconciled with Pakistan’s nuclear status. Pakistan continues to face nuclear apartheid. America has signed Agreement 123 with India and has opened the floodgates of fissile material for it, while it continues to pressurise Pakistan to sign a Fissile Material Treaty that would freeze strategic asymmetry to its peril.
The post-9/11 setting has provided yet another channel for the US-Indo-Israel nexus to malign Pakistan’s strategic assets. This time the strategy is to project the possibility of its nuclear assets falling into the hands of terrorists. Suggestions are often aired that Pakistan is at risk of succumbing to extremists, therefore, its nuclear assets should be disabled, seized or forcibly taken out.
The struggle is not yet over! However, as ever before, the nation stands united to defend its nuclear assets at all cost. Pakistan has made it clear that it would act decisively against any attempt by any quarter to harm its nuclear assets.
The writer is a retired Air Commodore and former assistant chief of air staff of the Pakistan Air Force. At present, he is a member of the visiting faculty at the PAF Air War College, Naval War College and Quaid-i-Azam University.