Event Recap: "Eating Grass" Book Launch

Jan 18, 2013
By Sarah Weiner
This week, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists forecasted that the number of weapons in Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal will overtake the United Kingdom’s in the next ten years.  A relative newcomer to the nuclear club, Pakistan’s growing nuclear stockpile has caused much consternation among analysts who worry about its impact on stability in South Asia.  And as recent skirmishes have flared up along the tense line of control in Kashmir, these concerns seem more valid than ever.
But this week, at a book launch event at the Wilson Center, author Brigadier General (ret.) Feroz Khan took a step back to explain how we got here.  His book, Eating Grass: The Making of the Pakistani Bomb, uses primary source material and personal interviews to explain and analyze the genesis of Pakistan’s nuclear program.  Understanding Pakistan’s nuclear development is not only important for Pakistan scholars but also for nuclear analysts more broadly.  Nuclear scholars are working with an incredibly small (statistically speaking) sample of nine nuclear states, so gaining a robust understanding of each nation’s path to the bomb is essential.  General Khan discussed a wide range of issues as an introduction to his book’s more comprehensive analysis, but here I’ll highlight just three lessons that emerged from his presentation that may offer useful insight into future cases of nuclear proliferation.
First, national identity and security are not mutually-exclusive explanations for proliferation.  Scholars have spent countless hours and pages trying to explain why particular countries proliferate.  Their explanations span a wide spectrum from nebulous considerations of national identity and prestige to hard-nosed security concerns.  Both accounts have been applied to Pakistan’s experience.  Identity-related explanations range from Pakistan’s desire to be the first Islamic country to possess a nuclear weapon to its disjointed political identity after Bangladesh’s (then East Pakistan’s) succession in 1971 to Islamabad’s desire to “keep up” with India’s nuclear progress.  But many of these explanations bleed into the realist realm of cold security calculations.  Pakistan’s hostility towards India certainly tapped into a deep vein of historical and religious animosity, but Islamabad’s assessment of India’s threat stemmed from its military strength.  Having just suffered a humiliating defeat to India in 1971 and feeling dangerously lagging in conventional capabilities, Pakistan began tenuous investigations into a military nuclear program.  After India conducted its first nuclear test in 1974, Pakistan abandoned its “hedging” strategy and began a full-fledged nuclear program, vowing to never again suffer such a large military defeat to superior Indian capabilities. 
General Khan noted the prevalence of these “never again” narratives in other recent nuclearization stories, especially those of China (who felt abandoned by the USSR and humiliated by the US in the early Cold War), Israel (whose very existence grew out of WWII atrocities), and India (who painfully lost territory to China in the 1962 Sino-Indian War).  These narratives sit at the confluence of prestige and security concerns.  The proliferators in question felt compelling threats from their neighbors and rivals, but their security calculations were informed by national histories and identities.  This powerful identity-security nexus may help explain the tenacity with which many actual and prospective proliferators – including North Korea and Iran – have clung to their new programs, even in the face of significant isolation-induced opportunity costs. 
Second, international attempts to stop a particular proliferator may have unintended and unpredictable consequences.  There is no formula for proliferation; each country’s program is highly dependent on indigenous capabilities, domestic politics, and international reactions.  That means that there are no clear “nonproliferation” levers for the global community to pull without risking unexpected externalities.  For example, Pakistan began its nuclear program in pursuit of weapons-grade plutonium.  But export restrictions on reprocessing technology and IAEA safeguards on nuclear power plants made the otherwise simple process of cultivating usable plutonium from civilian reactors much more complicated.  Then Abdul Qadeer Khan arrived on the scene, bringing with him the nuclear experience in he gained Europe and a network of contacts that allowed him to supply Pakistan with detailed centrifuge designs.  These centrifuges, coupled with Pakistan’s discovery of indigenous uranium ore, allowed Pakistan to take the less conventional “uranium pathway” to nuclear proliferation.  General Khan highlighted the haphazard development imposed on Pakistan’s nuclear program by international export restrictions.  Pakistanis had the expertise but often lacked the hardware necessary for high-tech designs, often forcing scientists to develop bootlegged re-designs or dubious workarounds for nuclear components. 
The assessment of international efforts to curb Pakistani proliferation depends on your perspective.  On the one hand, export restrictions and safeguards successfully stymied Pakistani nuclearization for two decades.  But on the other hand, sanctions arguably hardened Islamabad’s resolve and ultimately failed to prevent Pakistan’s first nuclear test in 1998.  And the existence of export controls set the stage for their high profile circumvention by A.Q. Khan and his black market nuclear network, which later supported embryonic nuclear ambitions in other countries.  None of this is to say that sanctions and export restrictions are counterproductive, but they may produce unanticipated and undesirable outcomes.
Finally, the process of “proliferation” doesn’t end with the first test.  There is no instruction manual handed to a state upon admittance into the nuclear club.  Freshly-minted nuclear states must develop delivery vehicles, deterrence doctrines, command and control procedures, and domestic oversight regimes.  And as Pakistan and India’s (and more recently North Korea’s) experiences have shown, this is no easy task.  General Khan emphasized that this process is still evolving in Pakistan.  Aligning procurement decisions with Islamabad’s official “minimum deterrence” policy is an ongoing process, sometimes producing decisions that outsiders struggle to understand.  For a country aspiring to “minimum” anything, Pakistan’s continued nuclear buildup in numbers and type seems odd.  But before assuming this growth is the product of disingenuous doctrines or nefarious motives, foreign governments should remember that Pakistan is a relatively new nuclear power with a far from unified cadre of nuclear policymakers.  (As is the case in many nuclear states; just look to the contentious START debates in the U.S. for further evidence.) 
General Khan concluded his presentation with an appeal to the members of Pakistani civil society.  It is time, he admonished, for Pakistani military personnel, politicians, and citizens to begin a frank and open conversation about the purpose and future of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.  As this conversation commences, the world would do well to listen and learn from Pakistan’s experience. 
Sarah Weiner is a research intern for the Project on Nuclear Issues. The views expressed above are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Center for Strategic and International Studies or the Project on Nuclear Issues.