Photograph of VT Joshi

Author - VT Joshi

"We are playing poker. One day somebody will call our bluff", warned Mr. I. H. Usmani, a former chairman of Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission. That was some 15 years ago though in a slightly different context. The day of reckoning seems to have finally arrived in the wake of the nuclear mess created by Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan hailed until now as a national hero.

Today when the self confessed father of the so called "Islamic bomb" has hit the headlines for clandestine sale and proliferation of sensitive technology resulting in an international nuclear black market smacking of mafia operations spear-headed by Pakistan, Usmani's words come to mind. The former chairman of the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission sounded his warning precisely when the same Dr. Khan triumphantly disclosed his claim to have made the N-bomb, in an interview to the eminent Indian journalist, Kuldip Nayar, in Islamabad way back in January 1987. Khan's disclosure was made apparently at the behest of the then Pak president, the late General Zia ul Haq, to threaten India when the armies of the two countries faced each in an eye-ball-to-eye-ball confrontation on the border.

Most distressed at the fall from grace of Bhopal-born Abdul Qadeer Khan is his cousin Basit Khan who is proud of their family's Pathan background and Afghan heritage. Basit, who lives in Madhya Pradesh capital, is convinced that Abdul Qadeer is a "victim" of Pakistan's internal politics. Basit concedes that Abdul Qadeer was less than average, indeed never a promising bright student when he migrated to Pakistan at the age of 17 in 1952.

Nevertheless the disgraced Khan has since been often in the news and constantly under a cloud for one reason or another. Indeed for a bewildering variety of clandestine activities. Usmani cast serious doubts on Khan's claims and ability to make a nuclear bomb and gave copious scientific reasons for his grave reservations in a detailed article in a reputed Pakistani daily. Usmani was not alone to caution his countrymen against being led up the garden path. The famous Pak physicist and Nobel Laureate, Dr. Abdus Salam, had his own doubts. He told the noted defense analyst, K. Subrahmanyam, that the possibility of Pakistan making a nuclear weapon was being "exaggerated". Salam exclaimed whether a "metallurgist who stole documents in Holland would be able to make the bomb" - in a chat with him in August 1985 as revealed by Subrahmanyam in a recent article in The Times of India.


The latest and the most recent to reinforce their doubts is the former Indian army chief, General S. Padmanabhan, who was dismissive of Pakistan's "nuclear sabre rattling" in the disturbing events after the attack on Parliament on December 13, 2001 when the armies of the two countries were once again facing each other on the border. Padmanabhan, who was the Indian army chief at that time, was reported to have asserted "they did not have anything. Nange the. (they were naked)". Replying to questions while releasing his book ("The Writing on the Wall .") General Padmanabhan stated that the Indian forces were not inhibited by Pak nuclear deterrent but restrained by the political leadership. There are several other well qualified observers of the global nuclear scene who still doubt the veracity, at any rate the extent of Pakistan's official nuclear claims and capabilities, and advance very sound arguments for their conviction to the contrary.

Mystery shrouds the origin of Pakistan's nuclear programme, which Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto passionately set his heart upon after its Eastern wing broke away to become Bangladesh. He declared that Pakistanis would "eat grass but have the bomb" at any cost. By hook or crook Zulfi wanted the bomb to establish parity with India, and found his answer in Abdul Qadeer Khan, then a metallurgist working in Urenco, Holland, since the 1970s. Khan was famously known to have begun his nuclear career with the pilferage of certain secret designs, and set up his Kahuta Research Laboratory near the Pakistani capital.

The climax, rather the anti-climax, came with Khan's "unqualified apology to a traumatized nation", and the reported "pardon" granted by General Musharraf for the nuclear mess smacking of elaborate pilferage and smuggling operations. Only a day earlier Khan had named General Musharraf, and former Army Chiefs, Mirza Aslam Beg and Jehangir Karamat, besides the late General Imtiaz, advisor to Benazir Bhutto when she was the prime minister in 1988-90, for their involvement in the proliferation racket. Aslam Beg was even quoted at one stage as having remarked that the sale of nuclear secrets was the best way for cash strapped Pakistan to earn some revenue.

In the face of all these reports it is safe to assume that Musharraf and Khan have "pardoned" each other in a quid pro quo apparentloy to bury the hatchet, as it were, and save Pakistan for further ignominy at the bar of international opinion. Curiously enough General Pervez Musharraf's nuclear bluff and bluster is buttressed and exaggerated by the United States in all probability to entice India to relent prematurely even before an end to the Pakistani support to "cross border" terror. One day Musharraf threatens India with nuclear blackmail and the next day he chants pious calls for "denuclearisation" of South Asia which must indeed be sweet music to American ears. Hopefully, possibly no longer in view of Musharraf's latest confession that he had suspicions about Khan's activities for the past three years.


According to some reports "hubris" was Khan's worst enemy which annoyed his colleagues at Kahuta laboratories. Stung by his propensity to amass personal wealth from N-proliferation they betrayed him.

The phony phase of Pak nuclear drama began, as noted, some 15 years ago. It was early 1987, the wintry month of January. The armies of India and Pakistan were in the same "eye-ball-to-eye-ball" combat-ready postures (as they had been for several months after December 13 attack on Parliament in 2001). The 1987 conflict followed in the aftermath of Operation Brass Tacks. Cross border tension rose sharply.


A flurry of diplomatic activity followed the exchange of frantic phone calls between Rajiv Gandhi and Mohammad khan Junejo, the then prime ministers of the two countries. A hurried visit to Delhi of foreign secretary Abdul Sattar helped to avert a disaster. Behind the scene however an enigmatic nuclear drama was being played out quietly. The eminent Indian Journalist, Kuldip Nayar, on a visit to Pakistan, managed to get an interview with Abdul Qadeer Khan. The interview, as it transpired later, had been arranged through a renowned Pakistani journalist and then editor of the prestigious daily Muslim, Mushahid Hussain. There were strong indications that the interview, which proved quite explosive, was not without the consent of President Zia ul Haq. But apparently it was without the knowledge of Prime Minister Junejo who felt terribly hurt and got Hussain eased out of the Muslim daily.

Khan's interview was the first ever announcement of Pakistan's claim to having achieved nuclear capability and a veiled nuclear threat primarily meant for India at the peak of the simmering border crisis. By some kink or eddie, the publication of the interview was delayed by a few weeks as the war clouds receded. But hell broke out when the story appeared in the world press.

"The message, obviously meant for 'belligerent' India, instantly reached America instead. It created a flutter in the dovecotes of the US administration", as the correspondent of Voice of America (VOA) in Islamabad mentioned to me. It was indeed the beginning of America's public display of displeasure with the Zia administration on the nuclear issue, which eventually culminated in the stoppage of aid by President Bush (father of the present US President) on the ground of his inability to certify to the Congress Pakistan's nuclear virginity as required under Symington and related US laws.

Domestically in Pakistan there was a hilarious sidelight. The episode provoked a fierce controversy and Abdul Qadeer Khan's authority to "spill the beans" was widely questioned -- and that too to an Indian journalist! It was blasphemy for Pakistani journalists. They had been constantly denied opportunity to meet the country's most prominent nuclear scientist who lived in splendid isolation-- in a fortress ringed by armed security men and aided by a number of ferocious Alsatians in a posh locality of Islamabad. Professional jealousies played no mean a part in Mushahid's exit from The Muslim.


Even more significant however was the general disbelief of A. Q. Khan's claims to absolute nuclear capabilities. As noted, former PAEC chairman Usmani wrote in the same Muslim daily in February of that year (within a month of Khan's disclosure): "It takes 7,000 centrifuges to work day and night for one year at the velocity of 32,000 miles per hour to produce ten kilograms of uranium 235 of 99.9 percent purity required for making one Hiroshima type bomb. Since technology has not yet advanced even in Europe to the required degree of perfection centrifugal plants had only been able to achieve uranium enrichment of only 2.7 (repeat 2 decimal 7) percent purity." (Fit only for power plants).

"If we are capable of making the bomb, we are playing poker. One day somebody is going to call our bluff", Usmani affirmed tersely.

In retrospect it does not appear to be far from the truth notwithstanding Chagai blasts in response to Pokhran II in 1998. This writer was surprised, on a subsequent visit to the United States, to find that at least a section of the Pakistani diaspora regarded the Chagai explosions as "big" crackers compared to Pokhran!

VT Joshi

9th February, 2004

VT JOSHI (1925-2008) worked for more than fifty years as a journalist. He retired from THE TIMES OF INDIA in 1989. During 1985-89 he was the Special Correspondent of THE TIMES OF INDIA in Pakistan. His books "PAKISTAN: ZIA TO BENAZIR" and "INDIA AT CROSS ROADS" (co-author GG Puri) were widely reviewed in both India and Pakistan.

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