Emily MacFarquhar
Emily MacFarquhar

Fellowship Title:

Benazir and the Bomb

Emily MacFarquhar
September 4, 1999

Fellowship Year

Way back in 1984, when Benazir Bhutto had just been released from years of detention by a military dictator, she traveled to Washington for benedictions and support. The brave young Pakistani politician told admiring American audiences what they wanted to hear: That she was not only seeking to bring democratic freedoms to her country, she opposed building nuclear weapons.

Other Pakistanis had given anti-bomb pledges, of course, including Benazir’s nemesis and jailer, President Zia-ul Haq. But Benazir, a product of the anti-war years at Harvard, was seen to be the real anti-nuclear thing. She was everyone’s best hope for a democratic, bomb-free Pakistan.

Fast forward 15 years, two Bhutto prime ministerships, and 11 South Asian nuclear tests. As the world seeks to come to terms with two newly declared nuclear powers, policymakers will be asking whether Benazir Bhutto, now leader of the opposition, should still be seen as a force for nuclear restraint in Pakistan.

When Indian set off the nuclear test match in May, 1998, one of the most strident champion of a vigorous Pakistani response was Benazir Bhutto. Theatrically tossing glass bangles on the ground, she taunted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif as a womanly wimp for not rushing to test. And she issued the single most provocative suggestion for dealing with India’s claims to nuclear powerdom. “Rogue nations that defy world opinion ought to be taught a lesson,” she wrote in the Los Angeles Times. “If a preemptive military strike is possible to neutralize India’s nuclear capability, that is the response that is necessary.” Her designated instrument of retribution? “The West,” meaning, inevitably, the United States.

In the uproar that followed India’s nuclear tests, no western government chose to notice this modest proposal for nuclear castration from a former prime minister of Pakistan. Even in her home country, where jingoism reigned in the wake of the nuclear test match, Bhutto’s ultra-hawkishness was seen as over-the-top. So once Pakistan had carried out its tat-for-tat tests, she became the peacemaker. She called for Pakistan to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and to conclude a no-first-use nuclear agreement with India.

A month later, it turned out that Bhutto the hawk was not so far out after all. The Sharif government was exploring a preemptive attack by Pakistan, according to one of four Pakistani nuclear scientists who fled the country in protest against orders to provide data for strikes on Indian military targets, including the possible use of nuclear weapons. The appearance of an unknown F-16 in Pakistan’s airspace hours before its own nuclear tests had set off fears in Islamabad of an imminent Indian-Israeli attack. Pakistan appealed to both the U.S. and the UN to intervene and put its own forces on alert. Bhutto made no further calls for military action.

Hawk and dove coexist in the hearts of many a politician. But for Benazir Bhutto, nuclear attitudes are further complicated by filial feelings. As she never ceased reminding her countrymen, it was her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who first threw down a nuclear gauntlet in the mid-1960’s with a famous pledge: “If India builds the bomb, we will eat grass or leaves–even go hungry–but we will get one of our own.” In 1972, after Pakistan’s defeat in the Bangladesh war, President Bhutto gave the go-ahead for building nuclear weapons. When India exploded its nuclear device two years later, the Pakistani program was speeded up and Bhutto gave it a new justification, as an “Islamic bomb.”

Zulfikar Bhutto liked to tell a story about Henry Kissinger threatening to make “a horrible example” of him if he did not give up the nuclear program. The incident probably never happened. But Benazir has woven it into an explanation of her father’s execution by President Zia in 1979–that Bhutto was killed at America’s behest, in fulfillment of Kissinger’s threat. She repeated this myth-history in Pakistan’s national assembly in June 1998.

Pakistan may well be the world’s leading producer, and consumer, of conspiracy theories, most of them involving American plots. Does Benazir Bhutto herself believe that the United States had her father bumped off in the name of non-proliferation? Impossible to say, and for Pakistanis, not strictly relevant. They got her message–that Bhutto was martyred for the bomb.

This is a point Benazir was less eager to push in the years when she was working to establish her credentials as America’s most reliable ally in Pakistan. Then, she had to damp down her party’s anti-American instincts, and its penchant for stars-and-stripes-burning, as well as disavow the bomb program. Her conservative rivals tried to use her nuclear dovishness against her in the first election in 1988. As a condition for taking power, she was compelled to cede authority over the nuclear program, among other things, to the president and the army. But her exclusion from nuclear policy-making was less than total. The first major nuclear decision in her tenure–a leveling down of uranium enrichment to below bomb grade–seems to have been taken on her initiative.

In June, 1989, Benazir returned to Washington in triumph, as democratically-elected prime minister, and told a joint session of Congress: “I can declare that we do not possess nor do we intend to make a nuclear device.” Americans loved her rhetoric and rewarded her with a sale of 60 F-16 jet fighters. But those in the know were less impressed. The day before her speech, she was given an unprecedented briefing by CIA director William Webster on what Americans knew about the Pakistan bomb. Bhutto was said to be shocked. But she already was aware that her nuclear assurances were hollow. Her army chief later admitted that she was “putting on a show for the Americans.”

That summer, Bhutto began to take a positive line on the utility of the nuclear option. She was the first Pakistani leader to say out load that Pakistan’s nuclear program was a deterrent against India. This may have marked the quiet death of Bhutto the dove.

In the winter of 1990, Pakistan found itself at daggers drawn with India over a separatist insurgency in the disputed territory of Kashmir. There still is some disagreement about what happened that spring–whether Pakistan and India were on the brink of war and whether Pakistan put nuclear weapons on some F-16s, as writer Seymour Hersh asserted in the New Yorker. What is indisputable, at least to American analysts, is that Pakistan pushed across a nuclear red line, probably by machining highly enriched uranium into weapons cores as well as by resuming bomb-grade enrichment.

Bhutto later told ABC television that she was out of the nuclear loop. It may have been more a matter of not wanting to know. When deputy national security advisor Robert Gates flew out to South Asia that May on a nuclear fire-fighting mission, she made herself unavailable. In August, she was thrown out of power. She had fought one too many battles with the president and the army. But Bhutto loyalists saw the hidden hand of the Americans, punishing her because Pakistan had crossed a nuclear threshold. Two months later, President George Bush cut off American aid to the post-Bhutto government, stating he could no longer certify that Pakistan did not have a bomb.

When Benazir Bhutto bounced back to power in October, 1993, she no longer faced a hostile president and army and no-go policy areas. Other things had changed, too. Pakistan no longer was playing coy about its nuclear capacity and American no longer was trying to coax Pakistani leaders into rolling it back. Bhutto’s aim was to win the release of Pakistan’s paid-for but confiscated weapons, including a few dozen F-16s. America’s aim was to trade the planes for a freeze on Pakistan’s nuclear program. Neither side ended up getting what it wanted before Bhutto was ousted a second time. But she had shown her generals that she still carried clout enough in Washington to resist nuclear concessions and yet bring some military hardware home. In 1995, when India was reported to be preparing a nuclear test, she had ordered Pakistan’s nuclear planners to be ready to respond within 24 hours.

With the testing outbreak in 1998, nuclear politics in South Asia has been transformed. Benazir Bhutto, dove that was, is now laying claim to a new titled, “architect of Pakistan’s missile technology.” She knows that in a climate of nuclear pride, there are no rewards for abolitionists. Would-be mediators can look to Benazir Bhutto these days, not for nuclear compromise, but as a guide to the outer limits of the new debate. As the most agile of Pakistan’s politicians, she has straddled them all.

©1999 Emily MacFarquhar

Emily MacFarquhar, a freelance writer in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is researching the life and career of Benazir Bhutto.

Emily MacFarquhar
Emily MacFarquhar