Pakistan's Bomb: A conversation with Pervez Hoodbhoy

Since 1947, when India and Pakistan became two independent states, they have gone to war four times, and continue to threaten each other—sometimes with their growing arsenal of nuclear weapons. Pervez Hoodbhoy, a Pakistani physicist living in Islamabad, is a prominent activist whom Metta Spencer met through the Pugwash movement. Here’s what they discussed over the phone on May 19th.

By Metta Spencer (interviewer); Pervez Hoodbhoy (interviewee)

PERVEZ HOODBHOY: (laughs) Oh, it’s not mostly the government that actually harms people here. It’s the guys outside the government. The extra-state actors, the Islamic terrorists. They are the ones that one needs to be afraid of. The government is too occupied with issues of corruption, shelling out favors, and its internal problems with the opposition political parties.

SPENCER: I have no conception of political life there but presumably (let’s hope!) it’s the government that owns all the nuclear weapons.

HOODBHOY: It’s supposed to but it does not. The army owns them. The government and the army are different animals. Theoretically the government runs the army, but in practice the army has a mind of its own.

SPENCER: And I hear of something called the “ISI.”

HOODBHOY: Yeah, the “Inter-Services Intelligence.” It’s a part of the army that is responsible for protecting Pakistan’s national secrets. It’s the usual cloak and dagger stuff—spying, kidnapping, assassinations—stuff that the CIA and KGB also do. They have too much influence. The army has too much influence. The religious people have too much influence. (laughs) It’s people like me who don’t have influence.

SPENCER: That’s why I asked how vulnerable you are. Are there questions that you cannot answer?

HOODBHOY: You have to ask the question before I tell you whether I can answer it. (We laugh.)

SPENCER: Good. Let me start with your own history. I’ve heard that it was you who exposed A.Q. Khan. Is that right?

HOODBHOY: No, no! My earliest contact was in stopping him from stealing the land of my university. He was so angry that he put me on the Exit Control List and I couldn’t leave the country until I persuaded the government that I wasn’t a threat. AQK had alleged that I had sold nuclear secrets to the US, Israel, India and that I was anti-bomb. What’s remarkable is that after he was thrown out and put under house arrest, he wrote me two letters that were drenched in self-pity. Maybe I should put them out on eBay.

The truth is that A.Q. Khan was exposed in late 2003 after the Americans seized the cargo ship that was on its way from Malaysia to Libya. Then it all started tumbling out. Meanwhile, everyone in town knew for years what he had been up to. He was even advertising it in newspapers and with street banners. Nobody had to spill the beans. He was spilling them all the time. Pakistan’s never seen such a publicity hound.

SPENCER: He must have felt very secure. He’s free now, isn’t he? My understanding is that the Pakistan government almost thanked him publicly and acknowledged that he was working on their orders. Is that the case?

HOODBHOY: Let me give you a bit of history. A.Q. Khan was working at the uranium enrichment plant in Holland called URENCO way back in the early 1970s. URENCO was building centrifuge machines to enrich uranium for use in nuclear reactors. But uranium, when enriched, is also what you can also make bombs out of. After India exploded its nuclear device in 1974, he secretly photocopied centrifuge designs, and established relations with the Pakistan embassy in Belgium. He went over to Pakistan to see Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who immediately recognized this as a good deal. After a while AQK returned to Pakistan with the nuclear secrets, and then started reverse engineering the technology. So that’s how he became one of the two central figures in this program. This went on until 1998—that is when Pakistan tested. Meanwhile A.Q. Khan was looking for ways to line his pockets by marketing nuclear equipment and materials. And now it is coming out in the Pakistan papers that his family members had a number of offshore accounts in Panama.

SPENCER: Oh! I hadn’t heard that.

HOODBHOY: The guy made a huge amount of money. He’s one of the richest people in Pakistan and all the time claims to be patriotic and dedicated to his country. He owns a huge amount of property—urban land, in particular, which is extremely expensive around here. He’s been pretty much out of the nuclear business for some years. Now I’d say he’s gotten soft in the head. He’s been writing regularly in the newspapers here on the weirdest things, such as how to deal with PMS.

SPENCER: Pre-menstrual syndrome?

HOODBHOY: I’m sorry, I misspoke—the article I saw was published in the Urdu newspaper Jang and was on what a woman should do after menopause. It was a bit bizarre, particularly since his only medical source was Reader’s Digest. (We laugh) He’s lost it now but keeps generating similar profundities every week.

SPENCER: I had the idea that he must have been doing this with the full support of the government. Otherwise they would have punished him as soon as they found out about it. Wasn’t he really acting on behalf of the Pakistan government?

HOODBHOY: He was acting together with some people in the government and, in particular, with some people in the army. This whole gang made loads of money. He’s very bitter that the generals didn’t get punished and he did. Of course what he got was just a tap on the wrist. Still, he wrote to me that if he had known how crooked the generals were, he would never have made the bomb for them. What gall! He thinks he made the bomb when, in fact, he was way more a smooth operator than a scientist. Most of the bomb work was done by the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission, and the basic implosion design came from China.

SPENCER: If it was just financial, that means that the government of Pakistan was not actually intending to share their research with Iran, Libya, and North Korea?

HOODBHOY: That’s correct. It was not any decision at the official level. These were guys on the take, including powerful people in the army. However, things move informally so one cannot say. Let’s remember that Benazir Bhutto took a trip to North Korea to get their No Dong medium range missiles for Pakistan. The quid pro quo was Pakistani centrifuges.

SPENCER: Why didn’t the government punish them then, after they found out?

HOODBHOY: Well, A.Q. Khan was kind of punished. He was removed from his position and put under a kind of house arrest. For a while he was barred from the media, and that hurt his over-sized ego no end. As for the others, there’s a kind of boys club there. Generals don’t punish their own kind.

SPENCER: Huh. Anyplace else I would expect him to spend the rest of his life in jail.

HOODBHOY: He certainly didn’t suffer much and he still remains a nuclear hero, even if somewhat diluted. Earlier on, he was like God. His picture would decorate the back of trucks and busses. When he’d enter an auditorium, the audience would spontaneously rise to its feet. But people have recently come to see that he is actually pretty stupid, like when he publically supported some fraudster who claimed to have made a car that would use plain water as fuel.

SPENCER: Now what was your own situation? You knew what was going on. How much access did you have to information about the nuclear weapons project?

HOODBHOY: I never worked on nuclear weapons myself. As a matter of principle, I am opposed to any country developing nuclear weapons. This has been ever since I got into physics at MIT as an undergraduate—after all I studied under some of those who had worked on the Manhattan Project and who suffered guilt during their lives. So I never had any official access to information. But there was enough generally known and it was clear that Pakistan was surreptitiously making nuclear weapons. Our university students were employed in the Atomic Energy Commission and other places in Pakistan and so, sure, we had a good idea what was going on.

SPENCER: So he sold all the knowledge to at least three countries—right? Libya, Iran, and North Korea? Simultaneously? How did it all work?

HOODBHOY: He was advertising openly that he could give important nuclear technology. In fact, in the streets of Islamabad his organization (which he named after himself as the Dr. A.Q. Khan Research Laboratory) would put up banners advertising such things as how to deal with vibrations in rapidly rotating machinery, which means centrifuges. So then whoever felt that they could benefit from this knowledge established secret contacts—I don’t know exactly in which order they were established, but yeah, all the three countries that you named benefited, the least of which was Iran perhaps. Iran did get some old centrifuges which they didn’t actually use because they were able to develop improved versions.

SPENCER: Oh. But North Korea got not only plans but some of the actual physical equipment? Were these produced in Pakistan?

HOODBHOY: No, they were produced in Malaysia and shipped out. AQK had a factory producing centrifuge parts there to supply the global demand.

SPENCER: And this all began as Pakistan’s response to India’s nuclear weapons development?

HOODBHOY: Correct.

SPENCER: And India began its program because of its animosity toward China. So it’s a contagion.

HOODBHOY: (sighs.) Ah, yeah. The nuclear contagion has spread across the globe. The US started it in 1945 and then a few years later the Soviet Union made its bomb. Then came the hydrogen bomb. There’s no end to it all.

SPENCER: Would you help clarify the relations among the countries of your region? There’s still mortal enmity between Pakistan and India, though I understand that some rapprochement may have begun recently with a meeting between Modi and Nawaz Sharif. But Pakistan is friendly with China and has some peculiar contacts in Afghanistan.

HOODBHOY: In a nutshell, Pakistan considers India its mortal enemy and is driven by Indophobia. Once upon a time it used to be buddies with the United States, which used Pakistan as a bulwark against communism. For decades the US was Pakistan’s principal supplier of weapons. Comes the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, and the CIA, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan have a grand time bringing in Islamic fighters and training them to bring down what Ronald Reagan called the evil empire. After that happened, the US walked away. One thing that Americans either don’t understand or don’t want to understand is that they created Osama bin Laden. There would have been no 9-11 but for America’s hatred for the Soviet Union and its temporary infatuation with the mujahideen and other Islamic extremists.

Anyway, that’s history. Today we’re chummy chummy with China. They give our boys all the toys they want including JF-17 fighter jets, submarines, and tanks. And, of course, all the help we got to make nukes in the 1980s came from China, including the design of the implosion bomb.

SPENCER: Yet the US continues to provide weapons to Pakistan too.

HOODBHOY: No, not so much anymore. We still want your F-16’s and some hi-tech stuff that the Chinese don’t have as yet. The White House wants the deal but Congress is acting up a bit and refusing to subsidize the sale. But they should know that we’ve found a kinder sugar daddy.

SPENCER: The worrisome thing about India and Pakistan’s mutual hostility is their nuclear weapons and their willingness to use them. Pakistan has about 120 of them?

HOODBHOY: That’s what we hear. India has about the same. We’ve had some pretty ugly confrontations in the past with nuclear threats hurled both ways. And now India’s going for nuclear submarines, second strike capability etc. And we’ve decided to go for tactical nuclear weapons—very ­dangerous stuff because TNWs demand decentralization of the command and control network. In a real sense, India and Pakistan are following the glorious precedent of the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1960s and 1970s. It’s total madness.

SPENCER: And they have never pledged not to be first to use them.

HOODBHOY: Pakistan has never abjured NFU (No First Use). It says that it will not give up this military advantage because the Indians are bigger and stronger. This is precisely what NATO said about the Soviets in Europe. Even today the US doctrine allows for first use even though there’s no need.

SPENCER: I saw a video about a conversation that took place in Washington on July 4, 1999 during Nawaz Sharif’s first time as prime minister of Pakistan. The Kargil war was going on and Sharif came to see Bill Clinton, who told him that Pakistan was momentarily ready to launch a nuclear attack on Indian troops. In fact, he read the riot act to him and told Sharif to withdraw his troops. He said later that Sharif seemed astonished at this news—that either he was a terrific actor or he actually didn’t know what his own army was about to do. What do you think?

HOODBHOY: Oh, I’m pretty sure that Nawaz Sharif did not know. He’s not a very smart man, and didn’t even know that his army had launched a secret invasion in the Kargil area of Kashmir until the Indians started screaming—and then of course he had to be told. Musharraf had been his hand-picked general but generals don’t consider themselves obliged to politicians, or even feel that they must be kept in the loop when going to war in secret. Our generals think politicians are a security risk.

So when Clinton confronted Nawaz Sharif on the nukes, it’s fairly likely that they were being readied. After all, why go to the trouble and expense of making them if they are just to be put in a museum? The Indians were responding to Pakistan’s secret invasion with air power, precision artillery, and had succeeded in defeating the invasion. Readying the nukes was a signal that an attack by India across the international border would unleash hell.

SPENCER: We were puzzled by Pakistan’s apparent protection of Osama bin Laden. The US obviously did not trust Pakistan’s government, for they violated its sovereignty by not even telling them they were going to Abbottabad to kill or capture Osama. What were the reactions of Pakistanis?

HOODBHOY: The political government cautiously welcomed it, then changed its tune in a matter of hours when an outraged army glared at it. Ditto for the public media, including private TV channels. Thereafter it was a flood of condemnation directed against America’s violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty. The army was furious that the Americans found and killed Osama bin Ladin. It’s an open question whether the military actually knew that he had been living right down the street from them.

Here’s my take: The top generals vaguely knew he was somewhere around in Pakistan but deliberately did not wish to be informed about his whereabouts by the ISI because this would establish complicity. So it was wink-wink nod-nod. They didn’t want to burden themselves or get into a confrontation with the other side.

Let’s remember that the ISI, which is part of the Pakistan Army, is deeply fractured. There are more than a few religious radicals, as well as American-haters, who feel their primary loyalty does not lie with the institution they belong to. They feel that protecting people like bin Ladin is a good thing.

SPENCER: Then there’s the matter of American drones killing Taliban terrorists in Pakistan’s northwest provinces, Waziristan and Balochistan. What do Pakistanis say about that?

HOODBHOY: I think it’s much the same thing as for OBL. The government and army expressed outrage when Mullah Mansoor, head of the Taliban, was killed inside Pakistani territory by a drone strike last week. Now here’s the paradox: Pakistan says that the US violated its sovereignty with a drone strike. Very true, but that sovereignty is also violated by the fact that the Taliban use Pakistan’s territory to attack a neighboring country, Afghanistan. Officially we deny having allowed the Taliban to do that, but in fact the Taliban shura (governing body) is based in the Pakistani city of Quetta. It doesn’t make for a very persuasive case.

SPENCER: Recently I have seen three sources asserting that Saudi Arabia possesses a few nuclear bombs. I don’t know how credible the sources are, but one of them explained that the Saudis had helped to fund the early phases of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program, and that Pakistan has reciprocated by giving them about seven of their bombs. From what you know, does that sound plausible?

HOODBHOY: Saudi and Libyan largesse made possible the development of Pakistan’s bomb way back in the 1970s. Then, when Pakistan tested its nukes in 1998 and was slapped with sanctions, the Saudis stepped in with 50,000 barrels of oil daily for free. This went on for years and prevented economic collapse. I don’t know if Pakistan has given them any bombs in exchange. I doubt it because secret bombs don’t constitute a deterrent. Besides, why do they need it? The Iranians have pretty much folded up their nuclear weapon program—if they ever seriously had one—after the Iran-US deal.

SPENCER: We nuclear weapons abolitionists here in Canada are both worried and thrilled about the favorable and unfavorable current developments. The deplorable fact is that most nuclear countries are building up their arsenals. The US and Russia are modernizing, while India and Pakistan are creating weapons for the seas. But on the favorable side, we see two trends. The first is the case by the Marshall Islands in the International Court of Justice against all the nuclear states. And second, there’s the growing movement to negotiate a legally binding treaty requiring disarmament. Tell me what you hear in Islamabad about the World Court case, since Pakistan is one of the countries being sued.

HOODBHOY: Actually, I haven’t heard much lately. Do you know what has happened so far?

SPENCER: The preliminary hearings only dealt with the jurisdictional and admissibility issues. The hearings ended in March and the court’s verdict is usually announced within three to six months, so it could be soon. If the court decides that they do have a basis for a trial, then during the next phase, they will discuss the merits of the cases. That may take years. Unfortunately, only Britain, India, and Pakistan face trial, since they are the only nuclear weapons states that accept the compulsory jurisdiction of the ICJ. And at the last minute, Pakistan simply sent in a written statement and did not make an oral defence.

HOODBHOY: But Britain, India, or Pakistan were not the states that tested weapons in the Marshall Islands and did the damage. It was the US.

SPENCER: True, but the Marshallese are not asking for money. They want the court to order all the nuclear states to live up to their obligations under Article VI of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Moreover, the ICJ’s issued its advisory opinion in 1996 that there existed an obligation to disarm nuclear weapons under strict international control. Obviously, they haven’t complied with that order.

HOODBHOY: Good luck to the Marshallese. But I’m a strictly pragmatic person who thinks that progress will happen if and when the balance of power changes, and material circumstances so dictate. Take the Iran-US deal. It came about because the US rightly recognized Iran’s strength in the neighborhood, its likely success if it pursued a nuclear weapons program, and an Israeli itch to attack Iran that would set the Middle East on fire for decades. Then came the tortuous negotiations—and success in defusing what could have been a terrible situation. There’s nothing even remotely similar in the Marshall Islands case. So I love the fact that they are trying to create a ruckus, but it’s not serious.

SPENCER: And here in Canada, we anti-nuclear weapons activists are encouraged by what happened during May in Geneva. There, at the Open Ended Working Group, 127 states called for the urgent pursuit of a new treaty to prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons. Moreover, nine states are going to introduce a resolution at the General Assembly this fall, to hold a negotiating conference next year for a legally-binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons. We Canadians have our work cut out for us: to convince our government to vote for it.

HOODBHOY: Okay.

SPENCER: I find that the most convincing point I can make when trying to wake people up about the risk is to describe the likely effects of a war between India and Pakistan. They say now that even the exchange of 100 nuclear bombs over your cities would create a nuclear winter for the entire northern hemisphere for a decade or so. The smoke would circle the planet and plunge us into cold summers, crop failures, and famine. They don’t print that news in the headlines here, and I wonder whether Indian and Pakistani military officers know about it at all. Do they ever talk about that?

HOODBHOY: There’s no understanding of what nuclear war could actually do. So most people in Pakistan or India think it is totally apocalyptic—that nothing will survive. That’s way wrong. The unlucky ones will survive to see unspeakable horrors and a destroyed civilization. And now here I must tell you a story—please excuse it being a little long—but it is so revealing.

As a nuclear scientist, I was invited to the office of General Shamim Alam Khan around 1990. He was then Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff. Frankly, it’s a little scary to receive a call from the GHQ in Rawalpindi. Our generals usually don’t deign to talk to professors, especially dissident ones. But here was a staff car, with a smart uniformed officer, that had been dispatched to fetch me from the university. I had to wait for an hour outside Gen. Alam’s office. Dr A.Q. Khan, who walked past me (he did not know me at the time) had suddenly dropped in to meet him.

Once Dr. Khan left, the general had many questions for me. He told me that the army was just learning to operationally integrate its newly acquired weapons into the command structure, and so wanted to know all about Permissive Action Links; command and control issues; possibilities of accidental nuclear war, etc. Although he was certainly aware of my opposition to the bomb, he was still sufficiently curious.

General Alam was a tough, short man who passionately hated India. He regaled me with various episodes. Once he had excused himself in 1985 from an order received from President General Zia ul-Haq. Zia was about to embark for Delhi on his famous cricket diplomacy stint and had ordered Alam to accompany him there. Alam asked to be excused saying: “Sir, if I ever enter Delhi it shall be only if I am sitting behind the turret of my tank.”

He then told me how, borrowing a small propeller-driven army reconnaissance plane from his Army Aviation Unit, he had piloted it into Indian territory and flew around for a full half an hour before returning to base. The Indians duly protested; Pakistan duly denied. His purpose for this stunt was to spite Zia for his peace initiative.

After General Alam had quizzed me on technical matters for over two hours, towards the end I said something to the effect that nuclear war should never even be contemplated because it would wipe out Pakistan. Alam was visibly irritated: “professor, what you are claiming is nonsense.”

He then asked me to calculate roughly how many would die if one hundred Indian bombs were dropped on Pakistan. My rough estimation satisfied him: Pakistan would lose 13 per cent of its population of 130 million (as it was then; it’s 200 million now). General Alam was triumphant—this was a tolerable injury, and hence not sufficient reason to hold back from a nuclear war. In time Pakistan would recover!

SPENCER: We all have to work harder to arouse public opposition to nuclear weapons. Perhaps the task is even harder in Islamabad than here in Canada, where most people agree with us, though they are far too passive. Is that the case in Pakistan? I saw the results of a poll today that had been done in 2008 in 21 different countries. They asked whether people favored an international agreement to eliminate all nuclear weapons according to a timetable, which would be monitored to makes sure every country followed the agreement. Overall, an average of 76 percent of the respondents were in favor. In every country except one, the majority favored the idea. In the US, the support was 77 percent and in Russia it was 69 percent. Even in Israel the support was 67 percent. Unfortunately, Pakistan was the only exception. Only 46 favored it there. Of course, that was eight years ago, so things may have changed. Which way do you think opinion is trending in Pakistan?

HOODBHOY: I don’t know which day of the week the question was asked and precisely how it was phrased, so I can’t comment. What I do know is that people everywhere behave as sheep. They can be driven one way or the other. Americans were gung-ho on nukes in the 1950s and 1960s. Now most want to get rid of them. So things change, and Pakistani minds can be made to change in a jiffy.

SPENCER: Thanks for this. I’ve enjoyed our conversation.

Pervez Hoodbhoy is Distinguised Professor of Physics and Mathematics at Forman Christian College, Lahore. He was previously professor of physics at Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad.
Metta Spencer is editor of Peace.

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2016

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2016, page 8. Some rights reserved.

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