ON July 05, 1977 when government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was overthrown by General Zia, relations between Pakistan and the US were deteriorating fast on nuclear issue. Nuclear advance of Pakistan increasingly became anathema to US. It used all means to bring it to halt. Possibly one mean was elimination of Bhutto because he was staunch pioneer and defender of nuclear program. He was prepared to pursue it to the last regardless of the cost. Not far in past, reportedly, US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, threatened Bhutto to leave it or be ready to face a horrible example out of him. To his lasting honour, he did not buckle.
In wake of his over throw, US had sigh of relief but much to its dismay, it lasted few hours only. Doctor Abdul Qadeer Khan was among few whom General Zia met first. He urged Doctor Qadeer to move faster because time is less. This was the start he made. Change was no change for US. Consequently, it did not pause to up the ante and relations nosed dive to lowest point. US also discontinued economic aid. In order to spur national austerity drive to brave ensuing economic woes, General Zia abandoned his lifelong habit of smoking Dunhill as a symbol of defiance and resolve. Nation also braced quickly to do what Bhutto foresaw that we would eat grass if it becomes necessary to produce atom bomb.
Nuclear advance of Pakistan was of two prongs. One at KRL under Doctor Qadeer. Other was nuclear reprocessing plant from France; for many it was aimed at disguising work at KRL. Under US intense pressure, France revoked the agreement. General Zia response was stern. In a meeting with French delegation after listening their implausible reasons, he grimly said, Pakistan has lost the reprocessing plant but France the credibility and walked away gracefully. To US also, his response was of a self-respecting and resolute nation. US ambassador was called to foreign office to register Pakistan’s serious concerns over escalation of campaign of threats and intimidation in regard to Pakistan’s peaceful nuclear program. Tight rope nuclear controversy continued until Russian tanks rolled in Kabul on December 20, 1979.
It was an earthshaking development and caught US napping. They came rushing to Islamabad with bouquet of renewed good will and $400m to woo long forgotten bulwark, enrolled in early 50s to fight Russian bear whenever it lands in the area. General Zia did not hasten to grasp their hand as was the routine in past. Rather he chose to keep them on tenterhooks and sarcastically spurned their offer of money, calling it a Peanut; an oblique reference to farmer background of growing peanuts of then US President Jimmy Carter. It could only be risked by a man who was sure of his ground. US National Security adviser Brzezinski also came to Islamabad to retry. He emphatically called money offer a just seed money yet it failed to persuade Zia ul Haq to change his line until opportune time comes.
Time came in Jan 1981 when Reagan occupied Capitol Hill. He was deeply obsessed with commitment to defeat communism at all cost. He was a right man for General Zia to cut the deal more profitably. General Zia was invited to US on a long state visit of eight days. During entire visit, American did everything to win over him but he showed no exuberance. He was greeted with friendship of warmth and affection however, he was quick to remind them of their broken pledges and assurances. He insisted that words need to be backed by deeds. They need to reciprocate sufficiently, not as of a big super power which wrenches out big advantages without responding in sufficient.
In hindsight, one can easily decipher what General Zia wanted from US as a quad pro quo to fight against Russians as a frontline state. One, US would make no bone about nuclear pursuits of Pakistan. Despite knowledge of Pakistan’s nuclear endeavors in access of redlines laid by them, Reagan continued to issue Pakistan exemption certificate. On each occasion, Americans came to Islamabad to remind General Zia of their expectation not to embarrass them. Two, US would give latest equipment as of Pakistan’s choice. To start with, he made provision of F-16 a test case. All followed on what Pakistan laid the hand. Three, US would not look towards India excessively. Resultantly, 1980s was an era of limited assistance and platitudes to India by US. Four, It is only Pakistan which would deal with Afghan Mujahedeen. Pakistan is only out gate for all weapon/money need to be flown to them. US had to follow despite their apprehensions that Pakistan may skim cream off.
By given standards, these demands, liable to be considered too offensive and exacting for a power like US from a country whose leadership had meekly remained in search of its nod. Probably with signing of Geneva Accord in April 1988, US could no longer endure him. On Aug 17, 1988, General Zia was killed in air near Bahawalpur. It was not a mere accident. Many fingers were also pointed towards US. General Zia may have used Afghan war to prolong his rule but as a whole he ruled Pakistan responsibly, as also duly acknowledged by then opposition leader Fakur Imam; a gentleman in Pakistan’s politics. His astounding mammoth funeral also stood a testimony. It was a rare show in which salient majority spoke loud and clear.
— The writer, retired Lt Col, is freelance columnist based in Islamabad.