How South Asia Turned Into a Nuclear Hotspot

A Tale of Two Abduls

May 7 · 27 min read
Agni V, a long-range surface-to-surface Nuclear Capable Ballistic missile successfully launched from a canister on a road mobile launcher at the Dr. Abdul Kalam Island off the coast of Odisha, on December 10, 2018. (Image: Government of India)

the Indian Navy’s aircrafts pummelled East Pakistan into submission in early December 1971, the very waters the aircraft carrier, INS Vikrant, used as a runway — the Bay of Bengal, prepared for the entry of a much larger predator. The US Navy’s Task Force 74 of the Seventh Fleet, led by the largest warship in the world, the nuclear powered 75,000 ton, USS Enterprise was deployed to the Bay of Bengal. On board were more than 70 bombers and fighter aircrafts and accompanying it were a flotilla of powerful destroyers. This show of strength was meant to deter India from any ‘misadventures’ in West Pakistan, and, if needed, target Indian military installations.

They needn’t have bothered.

The most enduring photo of the 1971 war — Pakistan’s Lt. Gen. AAK Niazi signing the surrender documents in the presence of India’s Eastern Army Commander, Lt. Gen. Jagjit Singh Aurora. (Image: Indian Navy, Wikimedia Commons)

On the Western front, Pakistan’s defences lay in tatters and their air force was blown out of the sky. In the East, in less than two weeks, over 90,000 Pakistani soldiers surrendered to India in Dhaka and a new nation, Bangladesh, was born. This was the largest surrender since General Paulus’ in Stalingrad, 1943. The deterrent in the Bay of Bengal, poetically, was a secret provision of the security-pact India signed with the Soviet Union in 1970.

To counter the American threat, Russia dispatched her own nuclear-armed flotilla from Vladivostok on December 13, 1971 under the overall command of Admiral Vladimir Kruglyakov, the Commander of the 10th Operative Battle Group (Pacific Fleet). Given the short range of the missiles (< 300km) the objective was simple — intercept and ‘become visible’ to the Americans, and the British who had now decided to join in. With express orders to target Indian military installations the American and British were armed with intent and weapons. The appearance of Soviet nuclear submarines in the Arabian Sea, Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal warded off the threat of the most mature democracies in the world targeting the largest. The irony of mature democracies siding with a military despot and a communist behemoth siding with India should not be lost on the reader.

This war brought to light concerted efforts of the Nixon-Kissinger combine to ‘crush’ India. The depths of their India hatred have only now begun to fully emerge. Here is an excerpt from a recently declassified foreign relations memo from May 1971.

Nixon: The Indians need — what they need really is a —

Kissinger: They’re such bastards.

Nixon: A mass famine. But they aren’t going to get that. We’re going to feed them — a new kind of wheat. But if they’re not going to have a famine the last thing they need is another war. Let the goddamn Indians fight a war [unclear].

Kissinger: They are the most aggressive goddamn people around there.

Nixon: The Indians?

Kissinger: Yeah.

Nixon: Sure.

(As further recently declassified tapes show — that hatred runs deep, very deep)

he US engineered Jordanian aircraft sales to Pakistan, asked the Turks and Saudis to intervene on Pakistan’s behalf, had the UAE send across half a squadron of fighters and the Indonesians to dispatch one naval vessel to fight alongside the Pakistanis. The earliest designs of a pan-Islamic coalition, under US leadership, were visible. Kissinger requested the Chinese to move a division towards the Indian North East (Sikkim) — which they did, backing off only when New Delhi threatened to bomb the Chinese nuclear facility at Lop Nor. To ward off these multiple pincer moves, India knew only one counter-threat or deterrent would suffice. Of the five permanent members of the Security Council — only the Soviets could, or would, provide India with that — a Nuclear Umbrella.

1971 made one thing clear — India needed to get her own.

| A Mountaineer Turns to Spying

Given the depth of American mistrust of India in the 1970’s, it is hard to imagine that India was the American ally of choice in the preceding decade. Kissinger’s other favourite pet obsession — China, drove the two democracies into each other’s arms. China had acquired nuclear weapons status to go along with their permanent seat on the UN Security Council. China also handed out a defeat to India in the 1962 Sino-Indian war. Pakistan was an irritant, but China was a strategic problem to be solved.

Thus, India’s first attempts at gauging China’s nuclear activity had American approval. After 1962, the US woke up to both China’s newly united might and her territorial ambitions. With few assets in the region and no foothold in China itself , let alone the remote regions where the tests occured — it turned to India to help guage Chinese activity.

Captain Manmohan Singh Kohli (Indian Navy) is mostly unknown outside mountaineering circles. He shot to (limited) fame in 1965 when he put 9 men of his expedition atop Mount Everest — a world record that stood for 17 years. At that time, most summit ‘teams’ were made up of 2 or 3 climbers. (To be clear: weather played a huge part, Capt. Kohli was able to send 2–2–2–3 climbers over successive days. Of course you need skill and great leadership but the weather gods reign supreme in the High Himalayas)

The Everest climb being feted at the subsequent Republic Day, 26 January 1966 (Image: National Defence)

The Americans needed a climbing team to assemble a nuclear listening device atop a Himalayan peak. After quick consultations with the Intelligence Bureau (IB), the CIA and IB sent for Captain Kohli in the late summer of 1965. Being the foremost climber in India afforded him the Americans’ respect. A team of 5 Indian climbers travelled to Alaska to train with the Americans. For Capt. Kohli this was barely a few weeks after he had summitted Everest.

The American team had members from their successful expedition in 1963 — so thankfully, there was little friction and enough of the grease of mutual respect. Capt. Kohli was, by now, seconded to the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) and the remaining four climbers were from the Intelligence Bureau. The training mission was to summit Mt. McKinley and place ‘nuclear listening devices’ at or near the summit. This ‘payload’ was punishing — an extra 45 pounds of weight at that altitude is the difference between life and death.

The CIA’s first preference was to place the listening devices atop Kangchenjunga, which at 8,586 meters is the third highest mountain in the world. A hare brained idea if there was ever one. Not only would the peak be well in the ‘death zone’ i.e. altitudes over 8000 meters, but the 3 hours it would take to instal the listening devices could well prove catastrophic to life. Captain Kohli refused to lead this mission and instead suggested Nanda Kot, which at 6,861 meters was both easily summitted and climbers could spend the extra hours needed to install the devices.

Captain Manmohan Singh Kohli

This proved to be a hard sell — the CIA wanted the listening devices to be placed higher up. Captain Kohli’s next suggestion was the nearby Nanda Devi. The two peak massif forms a mile long ridge, ideally oriented east to west. The extra hours and load would be strenuous but probably not catastrophic. So a compromise was reached — Capt. Kohli would lead the mission to Nanda Devi. An added benefit was that the peak was entirely within India as opposed to Kanchenjunga which was shared between Nepal and Sikkim. (The Kingdom of Sikkim was an official Indian protectorate back then and only joined the Indian Republic in 1975).

The majestic Nanda Devi at sunrise (Image:Sumod K Mohan)

eather and health were on the team’s side in the late summer of 1965. They made an incident free climb up to Camp 4. Here, however, just 500 meters short of the 7,816 meter peak, the weather turned inclement. At that altitude it means a blinding blizzard. With that, the chances of survival, if the climbers stayed put, dwindled. Capt. Kohli immediately ordered the team back to base camp. The sensitive payload was secured at Camp 4. The weather never gave them a chance to climb back up that year.

The CIA questioned Capt. Kohli’s decision to turn the team around and asked why they weren’t consulted. Capt. Kohli simply said,

“You seek advice when you are in Delhi. At 24,000 ft. it is my prerogative as team leader.”

The earliest the team could hope to come back was May 1, 1966, a year later. The team followed the same methodical preparation as last year and made it back to Camp 4. To their horror, they discovered that of the payload of 7 plutonium cannisters secured at Camp 4, one was missing.

The team spent three climbing seasons searching for the cannister. The risks of a missing plutonium load were high. The cannister making its way to the Kishen Ganga, a water source for millions could be disastrous. Despite all the additional weeks spent over three climbing seasons — no headway was made. The missing plutonium cannister, as of November 2020, still hasn’t been found.

Thus India’s first foray into the fast emerging murky nuclear world was hardly an unqualified success. The remaining cannisters were successfully placed, though, and provided India with much needed intelligence, and impetus, for her own nuclear program. But an auspicious start, this was not.

aptain Kohli’s back story is just as fascinating. He was born in Haripur, now in Khyber Pakhtunkwa. Till recently it was known as the North West Frontier Province, and for centuries, was the bane of British commanders. Unruly jagged peaks were matched by Pashtun tribes which violently rebelled against outside control. This area was quelled and claimed for the Sikh Empire by General Hari Singh Nalwa — after whom the town is named.

Being tough was a preoccupation since childhood — given the terrain and its neighbours. At the age of seven he climbed a 2,000 ft peak where his forefathers had been killed in combat by Afghans. Haripur was nestled between the Himalayas and Karokaram and the Indus ran beside it. A better place for a climbing career, could not be found!

It is only poetic, that the son of a wild frontier helped claim many peaks in the Himalayas for India and usher in, decisively, the sub-continent’s nuclear race.

| Back to the Dustbowl from the Himalayas

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Pakistan’s first democratically elected Prime Minister, tabled a high-level secret meeting on 20 January 1972 — a few weeks after his country’s humiliating surrender in Bangladesh. This wasn’t your typical politician-military conference which were largely a sham because it was the military which ran the meetings and the country. Instead, he convened the nation’s top scientists, sans the military, under a shamiana in Multan, southern Punjab, in the gardens of the home of Nawab Sadiz Hussain Qureshi, a donor and supporter.

The objective — restore Pakistan’s pride. The means — develop nuclear weapons.

his was a nation which was as yet unable to produce ‘sharp needles’ or ‘tarred roads’ by their own admission, but it was ready to embark on a nuclear weapons program. The younger scientists, Samar Mubarakmand among them, were the most vociferous supporters of the idea. The older scientists present were better acquainted with reality. In time, Mubarakmand would be in charge of the warhead’s design.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (Image: Dawn)

As foreign minister in the 1960s, Bhutto had largely built the network of nations which were ready to spring to Pakistan’s aid in 1971. However, even he came to see that it was only a nuclear weapon of their own, that could ward off the existential threat that India posed. In that, it was similar to India’s own assessment of needing her own nuclear umbrella as a deterrent against China.

Bhutto’s 11 years of negotiations began in 1965 — a few months after the first Indo-Pak war. This was also the year when India had been caught removing spent fuel rods from its unauthorised plutonium reprocessing facility at Trombay, near Bombay. It was also the year Bhutto vowed the Pakistani people will ‘eat grass’ if they have to, in order to acquire nuclear weapons. Doubly shameful for a country whose prime retort against India is that they are a nation of grass eaters.

Bhutto ran into stiff resistance from the older scientists convened under the shamiana. Too much negativity, he muttered to himself. He needed someone who could drive the program, build the associated industry and infrastructure needed, but most of all, be able to order critical parts and material from the West without arousing suspicion.

Ultimately, he sent for a Pakistani émigré living in the Netherlands.

| The Bhopali Abdul

Born the youngest of seven, to parents in their forties in pre-partition Bhopal, young Abdul was unremarkable in every which way. Close to being the runt of the family, and duly, not much was expected of him. Rejected multiple times from mundane industrial jobs, after his family had emigrated to Pakistan, he put his language skills to use and ended up as a technical translator in the Netherlands. Whilst in the Netherlands, he built his own private supply chain of nuclear fission material and personal IOUs.

He was appointed as the ‘Nuclear Czar’ by Bhutto. A combination of positivity and Western background swinging the decision in his favour. In the autumn of 1976, Abdul began making trips to the Netherlands, UK, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium and France — working his contacts and trying to amass the required materials and know-how for the first few stages of ‘the bomb’.

The names Henk Slebos, Gothard Lerch, Heinz Mebus, Albrecht Migule, Friedrich Tinner and Gunes Cire would all enter the world’s lexicon of convicted proliferators much later, but they entered Abdul’s address book during his years of ‘wilderness’ in Delft and Leuven. Pakistan capitalised on Abdul’s years in the wilderness.

Abdul Qadeer Khan (Image: T Mughal/EPA)

He caught the ISI’s eye whilst doing these rounds. Already guided, cajoled and coached by the ISI, he was convinced to move back to Pakistan. On July 31, 1976, Prime Minister Bhutto and two close aides — secretary general of defence Ghulam Ishaq Khan and foreign secretary Agha Shahi, helmed a high powered meeting when they gave the Bhopali Abdul, AQ Khan, the go ahead to build a uranium enrichment plant in Pakistan, named Engineering Research Laboratories — three oxymorons in a row.

The Project was codenamed 706, with its main facility in Kahuta. Khan gave himself a deadline of 7 years to build the bomb.

hen Project 706 and Kahuta became front page news in 1978, it had nothing to do with Western pressure. It had everything to do with Western shame. For years the West had known about Pakistan’s weapons program but had chosen to look the other way and suppress reports assigning culpability for fear of losing reputation. Thus, news of the extent of enrichment was constantly suppressed. Ultimately, the West only intervened when two Western diplomats — Pol le Gourrierec, the French Ambassador and Jean Forlot, his first secretary, decided to take a look at Kahuta for themselves and were beaten up by Pakistani security guards.

Over the next few years, the extent of enrichment achieved by Pakistan was an open secret in diplomatic circles. Hardly anyone, though, thought to do anything about it.

A notable exception was General Brent Scowcroft, the NSA to President Ford, who advised air strikes on Kahuta. It was seconded by Gerard Smith, a Yale educated intellectual heavyweight, who was brought out of retirement by President Carter to advise on Pakistan’s growing nuclear threat. Smith had been Eisenhower’s director of policy planning and Nixon’s non-proliferation chief. By June 1980 BBC had screened a documentary, “Project 706 — The Islamic Bomb”, the fullest investigation, yet, into Khan’s illicit enrichment programme. This, finally, set about hardening attitudues in the West. It wasn’t to last.

Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, President Gerald Ford and Maj. Gen. Brent Scowcroft, deputy assistant for national security affairs, and Ford’s dog Liberty in November 1975. General Scowcroft continued serving multiple US Presidents after Ford. (Image: Charles Tasnadi • AP)

President Carter’s days in office were numbered, but he did offer $400m in aid to President Zia of Pakistan, who had, by now, executed Bhutto. A wily political operator, which betrayed his military credentials, sensed the winds of political change in the US and held out for much more than the pittance of a $400m aid package that was on offer. This package included $90m in military hardware. This hardware included Lockheed L100 Super Hercules transporters, Chinooks, TPS-43 air defence radars along with some artillery and ammunition.

The Americans, lest they forget, were also bargaining with General Zia, and not just President Zia. Zia knew he had no use for the personnel carriers in the high altitude reaches of the Hindu-Kush where they were helping wage Jihad against the Soviets. He had his eyes set on a prized fighter which could take on the Russian MiGs — the F-16, which President Carter would not even countenance granting him. This hardware, in time, could be pointed East, much like the Jihadis. Personnel carriers, on the other hand, had no use in either the Hindu-Kush or Kashmir.

Zia simply decided to wait out Carter’s tenure. Ronald Reagan, riding high in the polls, was the poster boy of fighting Communism and surely, he would grant Pakistan all the weapons it cherished, as they took on the godless Red Army in Afghanistan. President Carter’s thoughtful and considered actions against Pakistan in the face of growing pressure from House Republicans has hardly received the attention it deserved. He foresaw the mess appeasement could lead to. The binary choice of helping Pakistan fight the Red Army or risk being labelled a traitor compelled many Congressmen and Senators to fall in line.

“Afghanistan was becoming a marker of patriotism. There were only two choices. You were against the Soviets and therefore for Pakistan. Or you were against Pakistan and somehow for the Soviets. Nobody thought to tell us that we could be against Pakistan’s bomb and against the Soviets too. That required too much work for the Reagan people. They were lazy and short-sighted” — Len Weiss, who helped write the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act of 1978, and Senator John Glenn’s (D, OH) ears and eyes on this issue

he US, now under President Reagan, decided to look the other way. The Soviets had entered Afghanistan and the Shah of Iran was deposed. Pakistan stood as the only bulwark against communism in the region. It was the only listening post left in the region. At least the only one which could be controlled. When President Reagan rode into Washington in 1981, he systematically broke down the ‘establishment’ CIA which he saw a liberal Ivy League clique. The CIA’s new Chief, Bill Casey, became the first CIA chief to be given a cabinet berth.

Then the Faustian bargain was let loose on Capitol Hill — the US would lavish aid on Pakistan and in return a ‘secure Islamic Republic’ would be less inclined to pursue nuclear weapons. This lavish aid now included Zia’s cherished F-16s.

The gravest betrayal of world peace was now complete. A nation was rewarded for pursuing a rogue nuclear weapons program with the most advanced fighter jets and other military hardware to deploy those very rogue weapons.

he worst, however, was yet to come. The US, thus far, had been working under the assumption, despite evidence to the contrary, that Pakistan now had no intention of pursuing nuclear weapons. However, in early 1981, and despite lavish aid and weapons, Pakistan had not ceased their operations at Kahuta. Notionally, at least, this was the bargain that the Americans were striking in their head — lavish military hardware in return for a cessation of uranium enrichment. They omitted to put it in so many words to the Pakistanis.

General Arif, Zia’s Chief of Staff, and Pakistani Foreign Minister Shahi arrived in Washington on 20 April 1981 fully expected to be lambasted for pursuing their nuclear programme. Much to their astonishment, however, Reagan’s Secretary of State, Alexander Haig, a long time hawk, told the visiting Pakistanis that their nuclear programme was a ‘private matter’ and the US would not interfere in the ‘internal affairs’ of Pakistan.

The message was clear — officially, we don’t want you to have the bomb, but we won’t stand in your way.

Intelligence estimates now stated Pakistan was ‘within 12 to 18 months’ of exploding a nuclear device.

| Smiling Buddha

The 1970’s in India were no less exciting. After having unearthed the extent of China’s enrichment, and the scare of 1971, India was ready to build her own safety net, a nuclear umbrella. Even though the Soviets had come to India’s aid in 1971, it was the same Soviet Union which refused to back India against her favoured ally at the time, China, during the 1962 Sino-Indian war. Nuclear security was a must.

However, the Indian attitude towards nuclear weapons, till 1971, didn’t swing decisively one way or the other. The Atomic Energy Act of 1948 set India on the path to tapping nuclear energy for civilian purposes. Canada and the US were eager allies in helping India set up her nuclear program. However, the 1960’s were complicated for India. Two wars, one each against China and Pakistan, three prime ministers and ever-changing priorities.

Some of the press reaction post the 1974, Pokhran I, tests.

1971, however, was the year that changed this calculus. India had built the know-how, it was now ready to deploy that knowledge. On 7 September 1972, near the peak of her post-war popularity, Indira Gandhi authorised the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) to manufacture a nuclear device and prepare it for a test. Pakistan too, in time, would name its nuclear facilities after the ‘father’ of their nuclear program, AQ Khan.

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi at the test site in May, 1974.

Raja Ramanna was the head of the program, ably assisted by P.K. Iyengar. Fewer than 75 scientists were involved in this project. The challenges the Indian scientists faced were far more surmountable than their Pakistani counterparts. Technical knowledge, an educated pool of eminent scientists to choose from, and a committed political leadership laid the pathway.

It was around this time, before the first tests, that Abdul Kalam, a scientist from Tamil Nadu, was deputed to this project from the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). He was a man from humble beginnings. His father, a local imam, was a boat owner who ferried Hindu pilgrims from the town of Rameswaram to Dhanushkodi. Dr. Abdul Kalam would go on to helm the DRDO, play a crucial role at the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), where he was the project director of India’s first Satellite Launch Vehicle. He would go on to be known as Missile Man and helmed India’s ‘declared’ nuclear tests in 1998.

Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam (Image:

The tests were conducted at the Army’s Pokhran Test Range, in Rajasthan, in May 1974, and this operation was codenamed Smiling Buddha. India maintained that the tests were peaceful.

“The Pokhran test was a bomb, I can tell you now…. An explosion is an explosion, a gun is a gun, whether you shoot at someone or shoot at the ground…. I just want to make clear that the test was not all that peaceful.” — Raja Ramanna in 1997, giving an interview to Press Trust of India.

Vajpayee’s statement after the 1974 tests. He would go on to helm Pokhran II in May 1998.

Dr. Kalam would go on to become the 11th Indian President, “People’s President”, and for all intents and purposes, became India’s first rockstar physicist, loved by citizens and students alike.

| Everything Passes Through London, and Vienna

Like all good spy thrillers, India’s attempts to uncover the extent of enrichment, also begin in London. An expatriate Indian typesetter in the city chanced upon a wad of 300 pages, written in English by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, in April 1979 — a few days after Bhutto’s execution. Before General Zia hanged Bhutto, Zia published a series of ‘White Papers’ that denounced the former PM’s public record. Unbeknown to anyone, Bhutto had actually penned a secret jailhouse testimony, a rebuttal to Zia’s claims, titled “If I Am Assassinated” with ‘the paper resting on my knees’. Clearly, these papers were smuggled out of Pakistan with great haste and this veritable goldmine ultimately landed on the desk of Girish Saxena, a high-ranking R&AW analyst in New Delhi, via R&AW’s station in London.

In truth, even though Pakistan was a few months away from acquiring the required levels of enrichment, by 1980 they had already completed the construction of five test tunnels in the Ras Koh range in Balochistan and one in the Kharan Desert. These tunnels were sealed till they had a ready bomb to test.

General Sundarji (Image: India Today)

The smuggled letters had laid bare the extent of Pakistan’s enrichment. Cerebral as he was, in 1981, Lt. General (later General) Sundarji, took the unprecedented step of publishing a war-gaming manual on the basis that Pakistan would immediately have a deployable bomb. Given these were credible threats to India’s security, plans had to be created to neutralise Kahuta.

Incredibly, the much vetted site of Kahuta was a mere four minutes away, as the fighter jet flies, from Indian airspace.

he first time the group which was convened to discuss what had become known as ‘the Osirak contingency’ was 1981 — after General Sundarji’s memo was circulated within the national security establishment. Osirak, or Osiraq, was the site of Israeli bombings in Iraq in 1981. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi put Air Chief Marshal Dilbagh Singh, Chief of Air Staff, in charge of the operation to neutralise Kahuta. Air Chief Marshal Singh ordered Jaguar squadrons to practise low-level flying simulating runs with 2000-lb bombs.

A few years later, in February 1983, these plans were advanced enough to compel Indian military officials to travel, in secret, to Israel to procure the required electronic equipment to target Kahuta. Israel, naturally, held an equal interest in neutralising Kahuta and ‘the Islamic Bomb’. In late February 1983, Indira Gandhi accused Pakistan of ‘covertly attempting to make nuclear weapons’. A few days later, Raja Ramanna, director of Bhabha Atomic Research Centre revealed that India, too, was building a uranium enrichment facility. This too was an open secret as India had already conducted ‘peaceful nuclear explosions’ in May 1974, in the Pokhran desert in Rajasthan.

Given political attitudes had hardened, any dialogue between the leaders of India and Pakistan would be labelled as traitorous. Thus, engineered by ISI, which suspected plans were afoot to neutralise Kahuta, Raja Ramanna met his Pakistani counterpart, Munir Ahmed Khan, head of Pakistan’s Atomic Energy Commission, in Vienna, later that year. Vienna is another staple of spy thrillers, for a reason. The East met the West in Vienna. The East also met the East in Vienna.

Khan warned Ramanna that Pakistan would hit India’s facility in Trombay if India threatened Kahuta. Downwind of Trombay was Bombay, a city of more than 10 million at the time. The chosen fighter jet for this bomber mission would be the F-16, which American largesse had bestowed on Pakistan.

ew Delhi couldn’t afford to take that risk. 1984 would yet see Operation BlueStar and the bloody aftermath in both Punjab and Delhi. Neutralising Kahuta was not a risk New Delhi could afford — given the dire consequences Bombay (and India) could expect in response.

Israel stepped in to fill the void. Offering to use Indian air bases in Jamnagar (and Ambala to refuel), Israel proposed flying in beneath Pakistani radars, along the line of the Himalayas through Kashmir. Given that the jets needed to spend less than five minutes within Pakistani airspace the risks were deemed acceptable. By March 1984, Indira Gandhi signed off on these plans. Much earlier than would become evident to the wider world, India, Israel and Pakistan were inches away from a nuclear conflagration.

It was at this point that the CIA tipped Pakistan, and President Zia, off, hoping to short circuit this nuclear doomsday machine. This conflagration could have seen India, a known nuclear nation; Israel, with US’s implicit backing; and Pakistan; a nation which Reagan insisted did not have nuclear weapons, come to nuclear blows. India and Israel backed off, perhaps, when the stakes of such a confrontation were laid bare.

The entrance to Engineering Research Laboratories in Kahuta, named after Dr. AQ Khan in May 1981. (Image: Dawn)

There were three or four tiers of guards protecting Kahuta, including military intelligence, two brigades of 10,000 regular soldiers, one anti-aircraft battalion, a commando unit with dogs and even a signals battalion guarding the Kahuta complex. All, bar the anti-aircraft unit, would have been a mere footnote in an air assault.

Pakistan was clearly aware of the threat to Kahuta, perhaps even before the CIA tipped them off with concrete plans.

Pakistan’s Chief of Air Staff, Air Marshal Anwar Shamim, even said to General Zia, “The Indian aircraft can reach the facility in three minutes whereas the PAF would take eight minutes,” said the air chief, “[This will] allow the Indians to attack the facility and return before the PAF can defend it.”

K. Subrahmanyam, then chairman of India’s Joint Intelligence Committee, and father of the current Foreign Affairs Minister, said

“Our intelligence people also had evidence of Pakistan’s air force increasing their levels of readiness”.

AQ Khan boasted in multiple articles for publications such as The Muslim and Daily Jang, that Kahuta was just one ‘of many plants’ and they could build more if Kahuta was destroyed. Even to the untrained eye, this bravado and confidence must have felt misplaced. Whilst it is clear now with CPEC and Prime Minister Imran Khan stating that Pakistan’s economic wagon is hitched to China, few had uncovered, in time, that it was China who had passed on their nuclear designs to Pakistan in the 1970's.

| Black Money and Brass Tacks

Well into its first team, the Reagan administration, had no plans to halt spending to Pakistan in the face of the Soviet Union deploying helicopter gunships to massacre the Afghan mujahideen, who were still poorly armed. Rather than go to Congress, CIA ‘black money’ started funding the operations in Afghanistan, via Pakistan. The $60m in annual ‘assistance’ in 1981 had morphed into $250m a year by 1984. This would jump to $300m in 1985 — every CIA dollar being matched by Saudi Arabia.

If there existed an Islamic Bomb — who else, but Saudi, could claim ultimate moral authority over it?

laring financial holes were visible in the accounts of what was now called the Khan Research Laboratories (KRL). Western intelligence pegged the annual budget of KRL at $550m and perhaps as much as $700m. However, the official accounts of KRL showed its annual budget as a measly $18m. What could account for this glaring gap? Was some of the $300m in annual aid being funnelled into KRL? Or had a big North Easterly neighbour come to help?

General Aslam Beg, who reviewed the finances and was appointed Chief of Army Staff in 1988, said ‘The budget for KRL was separate from everything else. It was kept from the Cabinet and struck from the usual budgetary documents’. Subtract the actual running costs of KRL from Pakistan’s ‘actual budget’ and you would be left with peanuts for the rest of the country.

India’s Joint Intelligence Committee also reported that Pakistan was spending around $7.5m a month to reinvigorate the proxy war across Kashmir and Punjab. That is another $90m a year. KRL accounts were also being fed by fake charities which received US Congressional aid, according to a British diplomat who reviewed intelligence as far back as 1982.

Unwittingly, the American taxpayer, and knowingly, the Saudi royal family, funded an illicit nuclear weapons program and cross border terrorism.

1987, having evaded any seek and destroy mission, Kahuta was fast turning into a deterrent. In December 1986, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi gave the go-ahead to Operation Brass Tacks. The perennial hawk, and the author of the 1981 memo to destroy Kahuta, General Sundarji, was by now the Chief of Army Staff and in charge of Operation Brass Tacks.

New York Times’ article on Operation Brass Tacks, March 1987 (Source: New York Times)

It involved moving 500,000–800,000 troops and more than a 1,000 of his favoured armoured vehicles, to the international border with Pakistan. This was a Ministry of Defense operation/exercise, championed by General Sundarji and the Minister of State in the defense ministry Arun Singh, to simulate the operational capabilities of the Indian armed forces. This came on the back of India’s Siachen Glacier mission, a long running Pakistani backed militancy in Punjab and ultimately, Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program. This was, on the record at least, meant purely as an internal exercise to demonstrate the new armoured and light infantry capabilities of the Indian Army. The message to President General Zia was clear though.

Defence Minister, V.P. Singh, greeting the three service chiefs. V.P. Singh was fired shortly after for knowing too much about the Bofors scandal. General Sundarji, middle, in his newly designed Armoured Corps dungaree. (Image: Hindustan Times)

long with massing his armoured and other elements along the international border, General Zia tasked AQ Khan with sending a warning to India via an interview. Afterall, the threat of counter-attacks against Bombay, via unofficial channels, had worked in 1984. They chanced upon just the perfect interviewer — Kuldip Nayar. Nayar, a Hindu born in Sialkot, which now lies in Pakistan, grew up speaking Urdu and English and only learned Hindi when his family moved to Delhi in 1947. By now, he was established as one of India’s foremost journalists.

Nayar travelled to Khan’s residence in Pakistan, past heavily guarded secrets, and with gentle prodding was able to get Khan to reveal the extent of Pakistan’s nuclear enrichment. Along with confirming they had ‘tested’, he also said that ‘another East Pakistan’ moment shall never come to pass. “We won’t waste our time with conventional weapons”, Khan said. Nayar had his story and The Observer finally ran it on 1 March 1987. The headline said simply,

“Pakistan Has the A-Bomb”

his was a major embarrassment to President Zia, who had only wanted to send a subtle message to India whilst keeping America onside. With Khan’s tempestuous outburst, such pretentions had gone out the window too. Pointedly, the Observer ran the story after Operation Brass Tacks had been called off after President Zia visited the Indian Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, earlier in the year. With the troops back in their barracks and tanks bank in their sheds, it would take a monumental effort, and money, to ‘put on the show’ again.

Much was done to discredit Nayar’s story — including painting him, as what else, but a ‘scummy R&AW agent’. Various ministers, and finally President Zia himself, strenuously denied that Pakistan possessed ‘the bomb’, but truth has a life of its own.

US Senator John Glenn, who wanted to place tighter restrictions on Pakistan in exchange for aid as far back as 1983, rang Nayar and asked him if the story was true. Nayar said, “Senator Glenn, every word of it is as Abdul Qadeer Khan told me. The whole dangerous, angry, cantankerous truth”.

Nayar was paid a paltry £350 for the article and the bomb was real.

| A New Peace

The story of the nuclearisation of the sub-continent is really one of the decades preceding the 1990’s, even though the ‘declared’ nuclear tests of both nations occured, a few days apart, in 1998. India fought, and won, the Kargil War in 1999, under the nuclear umbrella. Terrorism in Kashmir in the 1990’s followed on from the terrorism in Punjab in the 1980’s. Along with foreign fighters freshly decommissioned in Afghanistan, however, now the backers of that terrorism now had nuclear weapons.

Pokhran II in May 1998. The ‘Missile Man’ ABJ Abdul Kalam would go on to become one of India’s most beloved Presidents (Image:@mpparimal | Twitter, The Print)

ltimately, India and Pakistan’s declared nuclear weapons tests were conducted a few months apart in 1998. I have no pretentions of saying that India’s is a ‘more righteous’ bomb. Without initial assistance by the US and Canada for her civilian program, India would not have had the much needed impetus. However, the differences are stark:

  1. India used her own citizens as nuclear scientists — without having to rely on her diaspora or the West’s largesse and connivance. Pakistan, being much smaller and scientifically backward, had no option but to explicitly do so. It was not the first time, and it won’t be the last time, it hitches its wagon to the Chinese dragon;
  2. India succeeded in hoodwinking the CIA and other Western intelligence agencies in the years leading up to the tests, whereas Pakistan’s nuclear weapons progress was covered up as a matter of militant policy by the USA, UK, Netherlands and Germany. Conscience stricken public officials only woke up from their slumber when it was far too late;
  3. India was quick to announce her nuclear doctrine — no first use and no use against non-nuclear power nations, within days of the ‘official’ detonation in 1998 whereas Pakistan purposely kept its’ vague. That is simply not how a responsible nuclear power can hope to behave;
  4. India developed nuclear weapons for her safety using her own money. It wasn’t driven by a desire to have a ‘Hindu bomb’, but rather by national security considerations. India’s need wasn’t driven by Pakistan, but rather by China acquiring the weapons in the aftermath of the 1962 war. Pakistan’s attainment of weapons mirrored India’s own — they had suffered humiliating defeat(s) against a more powerful neighbour and wanted protection which the West was unwilling to provide. However, it was happy to label it an ‘Islamic Bomb’, something the whole ummah could cherish. Saudi Arabia, after all, helped fund it; and
  5. Ultimately, India’s nuclear weapons proliferations record is spotless i.e. no nuclear weapons secrets emanated out of India and landed in the wrong hands or rogue nations. Pakistan, on the other hand, is the mother lode of nuclear proliferation. A.Q. Khan sold these secrets to Libya, Iran and North Korea — the triumvirate George Bush described as the ‘Axis of Evil’.
The PAEC testing team at Koh Kambaran, with team leader Samar Mubarakmand (right of the man in the blue beret), Tariq Salija, Irfan Burney, and Tasneem Shah. A. Q. Khan of Kahuta Research Laboratories (KRL) is left of the man in the blue beret (who may be General Zulfikar Ali).
The Dawn’s front page from May 28, 1998 (Source: Dawn)

The similarity however is poetic — both nuclear weapons programs were carried out because a nation can only rely on her own capability and is inherently prone to mistrust her neighbour or ally’s intent. The US has proved, time and again, to be a fair-weather friend to Pakistan — but Pakistan still hasn’t learned to wean itself off the lethal combination of aids packages and military equipment. Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, in their eyes, provide them a way of doing so. China has now stepped in to fill the post-2011 void created by US withdrawal of aid dollars and weakening ties. India found herself diplomatically isolated after the break-up of the Soviet Union and the only way to ensure her survival and progress was by declaring a nuclear weapon of her own.

More importantly though, both programs were helmed by Indian-born Muslims named Abdul. In a subcontinent brutally divided on the basis of religion, this is not insignificant and, perhaps, says more about the region than this entire article could. Pakistan’s Abdul went on to be the man who has single-handedly made the world more unsafe and passed on secrets to rogue nations. India’s Abdul went on to serve as the most popular President of the Indian Republic. Ultimately, it reflects the skeletal differences between the two nations.

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —

The Cult of Special Forces is Threatening Regular ‘Soldiering’


XI: India’s Most Ambitious Hawk

XIV: Inside the Special Forces identity crisis

XXV: Doval Durbar

XXX: Kargil, the Bodyguard of Pakistan’s Lies

XXXV: The Three Indian Armies

XXXIX: India’s Undeclared War

Dialogue & Discourse

News and ideas worthy of discourse.


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The National Identity Series | Military | Strategic Affairs | History | Economics & Finance — all in Narrative Non-Fiction

Dialogue & Discourse

News and ideas worthy of discourse. Fundamentally informative and intelligently analytical.


Written by


The National Identity Series | Military | Strategic Affairs | History | Economics & Finance — all in Narrative Non-Fiction

Dialogue & Discourse

News and ideas worthy of discourse. Fundamentally informative and intelligently analytical.

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