The security landscape in South Asia is changing radically due to the introduction of new nuclear and conventional military capabilities by both India and Pakistan. Dialogue between the two countries on managing deterrence has not kept pace with these developments, leaving a dangerous gap in their mutual understanding of nuclear doctrines and operational concepts. Further complicating this picture is uncertainty in the manner of sending, receiving, and perceiving nuclear signals between the parties.
One of the most-discussed instances of nuclear signaling in South Asia occurred during the crisis sparked by a 1986–1987 military exercise known as Operation Brasstacks, which involved a major deployment of Indian Army formations in the state of Rajasthan, close to the Pakistani border. Pakistan interpreted the war game as a major provocation and perhaps the prelude to an Indian attack. It mobilized its own army formations in response, and by January 1987 troops from both sides confronted each other along sensitive stretches of the international border.
In late January 1987, prominent Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer (A. Q.) Khan stated in an interview with a visiting Indian journalist, Kuldip Nayar, that Pakistan possessed nuclear weapons and that they could be used to defend Pakistan against an Indian attack. Many analysts believed Khan’s statement and implied threat was an attempt at nuclear signaling.
Scholars have interpreted and reinterpreted this interview over the intervening years, and it continues to be debated. That it remains a controversial event in the annals of the conflictual Indian-Pakistani relationship demonstrates why nuclear signaling deserves far more attention in bilateral dialogue than it has received to date.
The Khan-Nayar interview had several unusual aspects. Noted Pakistani journalist and current senator Mushahid Hussain, then editor of the national newspaper the Muslim, arranged the meeting and accompanied Nayar to Khan’s residence. The interview took place on January 28, 1987, during the Brasstacks crisis, but it was only published on March 1, 1987, in London’s Observer newspaper. By that time, the crisis had already abated; indeed, an agreement was reached on March 2 between the Indian and Pakistani interlocutors to withdraw their troops from all frontier locations.
Some years earlier, the Pakistani government had given control of its nuclear-weapons program, previously under the direction of the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) and its chairman, Munir Ahmed Khan, to A. Q. Khan and his institute, Khan Research Laboratories. In the interview with Nayar, Khan claimed that Pakistan had enriched uranium to weapons grade and that it had succeeded in making nuclear weapons. He further added that “America knows it. What the CIA has been saying about our possessing the bomb is correct.”
Khan’s unqualified assertion led to a storm in both Pakistan and India. Deeply embarrassed, Pakistani officials orchestrated a denial by Khan, who stated that the interview published by the Observer was “false and concocted.” Hussain was forced, under government pressure, to resign from the editorship of the Muslim.
Scholars have sought to clear up some of the lingering points of confusion surrounding the Nayar-Khan meeting, such as the details of its orchestration. A minute examination of the interview in The Undeclared Bomb: The Spread of Nuclear Weapons highlights the fact that, before resigning, Hussain confessed to a British reporter that he had arranged the meeting and that it had lasted around an hour. This forced Khan to admit that the meeting was set up in advance, although he still claimed that it was only a “chat” during a social call.
Nayar himself later admitted an additional confusing fact: most of his interview was an almost verbatim account extracted from an (unattributed) article written and published by Khan in the Pakistani daily newspaper Dawn. According to Nayar, Khan had suggested that he might draw on the Dawn article to flesh out the interview. Nayar insisted, however, that he had reported accurately Khan’s confession about Pakistan possessing nuclear weapons.
Yet analysts remain skeptical about this narrative because several major loose ends have yet to be plausibly reconciled. For one, how did a Pakistani journalist take along an Indian reporter to meet a high-security person such as Khan? Was the Pakistan Army, which keeps a vigilant watch over the country’s nuclear program—its “crown jewels”—unaware of this meeting? Since this is most unlikely, why did the Pakistan Army permit the interview? Was it part of an elaborate plot to convey a nuclear threat to India?
Furthermore, why did Nayar wait for some five weeks before publishing the Khan interview in an English newspaper? And was the Indian government oblivious to Khan’s nuclear threat until the interview’s publication?
Answering these questions is crucial not only to understanding the events surrounding the Nayar-Khan interview but also to appreciating the challenges associated with nuclear signaling.
Studying the Nuclear Signal
The only systematic study of the context for this episode, Brasstacks and Beyond: Perception and Management of Crisis in South Asia, concludes that Khan’s message did not reach India “at the proximate time of the crisis. Indeed, it probably did not affect the unfolding of the crisis in any way. By January 28, in any case, the crisis had passed.” A chronology of day-to-day events included in this study notes that in retrospect the tensions seem to have peaked on January 23, when India and Pakistan agreed to have talks on defusing the crisis and reactivated the hotline between their military operations directorates.
Overall, the study concluded, “the nuclear question was not a real issue during the Brasstacks exercise. . . . The real concern was that a large-scale conventional conflict might be triggered by accident or mutual misperception.” However, the Khan interview did succeed in “making it more difficult for the United States to ignore the direction of . . . [Pakistan’s] military nuclear program.”
A later study, Four Crises and a Peace Process: American Engagement in South Asia, reviews these conclusions and finds that Nayar’s Khan interview “remains one of the puzzles of 1987,” largely because the audience for this nuclear signaling was unclear. Khan’s comments could have been meant for India, the United States, or the domestic population. This study also notes that although the timing of the interview’s publication meant it had no effect on the Brasstacks crisis, “it did accelerate the nuclear programs of both India and Pakistan.”
In his own version of events, contained in Beyond the Lines: An Autobiography, Nayar confessed that he “concocted a story” to elicit a strong reaction from Khan. Nayar claimed he told Khan that on his way to Pakistan he had run into Homi Sethna, then the chairman of the Indian Atomic Energy Commission. According to Nayar, Sethna had asked him why he was wasting time looking into nuclear weapons in Pakistan, which had “neither the men nor the materials to make such a weapon.” Told by Nayar of Sethna’s purported remarks, Khan apparently exploded and boasted that Pakistan had made the bomb, adding the threat, “If you ever drive us to the wall, as you did in East Pakistan, we will use the bomb.” Questions remain, however, about whether Khan would have fallen for this crude ploy in conversing with two senior journalists, given his sensitive position in Pakistan.
The latest attempt to unravel this mystery is contained in Eating Grass: The Making of the Pakistani Bomb. Written by a former official in Pakistan’s Strategic Plans Division, this insider account of Pakistan’s relentless nuclear quest commands serious attention. It concludes that, during the course of his interview to Nayar, Khan “went into overdrive, confirming the success of Pakistan’s enrichment capability and even boasting of Pakistan’s possession of a nuclear bomb. . . . Mushahid Hussain construed Khan’s candor to be deliberate nuclear signaling to influence the intense ongoing diplomacy between the two countries to diffuse the Brasstacks military crisis. Kuldip Nayar became the self-appointed messenger to convey the ‘nuclear threat’ to India.”
According to this study, after Nayar published the interview the notoriously glib-tongued A. Q. Khan was given a severe dressing down by then Pakistani president Mohammad Zia ul-Haq for his indiscretion. As a result, Khan Research Laboratories was divested of Pakistan’s nuclear-weapons program, which was handed back to PAEC and the low-profile Munir Ahmed Khan.
Formal and casual conversations with some of the participants in these events also shed light on the Nayar-Khan meeting. Munir Ahmed Khan refused to be drawn into any discussion on this interview but could not refrain from snidely observing that he could never compete with A. Q. Khan’s “self-promotion.” Nayar confirmed the statements in his autobiography that he had inveigled Khan, whose egotism was legendary, into making his indiscreet statements.
Nayar also claimed that Hussain, whose walima (marriage) he had traveled to Pakistan to attend, had apparently arranged this unusual interview as a “present” to Nayar. In 1994, Hussain substantially confirmed the details of how Nayar came to meet Khan in his company.
On the critical question of whether he had remained silent about the contents of the interview until it was published, Nayar was evasive but created the impression that he did not inform anyone about Khan’s nuclear signal. However, when Hussain was asked whether he thought Nayar had shared the information, he was wholly skeptical and scoffed, “Kuldip could never have digested so vital a piece of information. He must have regurgitated it to the [Indian] embassy in Islamabad.”
Hussain’s suggestion was later confirmed by an embassy official who had met Nayar in his hotel, escorted him to the Indian embassy in Islamabad to meet the ambassador (the late Shilendra Kumar Singh), and then took him back to his hotel. According to this embassy official, it was Nayar who had sought an urgent meeting with the Indian ambassador. As other narratives also confirm that Nayar visited the Indian embassy in Islamabad immediately after his interview, one can assume that India received Khan’s nuclear signal soon after he expressed it.
Interpreting the Signal
Correctly interpreting Khan’s unorthodox nuclear signal involves addressing important questions about how and why this interview took place. An informal meeting between a high-profile scientist working on Pakistan’s nuclear-weapons program and an Indian journalist seems unlikely unless it was expressly permitted by the Pakistan Army. Here, one can consider the account published on July 19, 2013, in the Indian Express alleging that General Aslam Beg, deputy to General Khalid Mahmud Arif, then the head of the Pakistan Army, planned the meeting between Nayar, Hussain, and Khan.
According to this version, Beg recruited Hussain to execute a plan to let Khan “showcase” the Pakistani deterrent. Unfortunately, the plan went awry when Khan lost his composure and went far beyond his mandate, causing embarrassment all around.
The question of why Nayar waited for some five weeks before publishing the Khan interview, long after the Brasstacks crisis had passed, yields a very mundane answer. Apparently, Nayar realized he was sitting on a gold mine and began hawking his story to several newspapers before selling it to the Observer, which presumably offered the best terms. Several knowledgeable individuals in the journalistic, bureaucratic, and political communities have subsequently confirmed that financial considerations were guiding Nayar.
If he felt apprehensive about waiting so long to publish the report, Nayar could have taken refuge in the thought that he had conveyed the gist of his Khan interview to the Indian embassy in Islamabad at the earliest available opportunity. Indeed, there is little reason to doubt that India knew of Khan’s nuclear threat almost immediately after it was delivered.
But, as described in Brasstacks and Beyond, the nuclear signal was ignored in New Delhi, where officials were largely concerned at that juncture with the possibility of the crisis erupting into “a large-scale conventional conflict . . . triggered by accident or mutual misperception.” The late Indian Army general Krishnaswamy Sundarji was wholly dismissive of Pakistan’s nuclear capability in an interview for the book. He believed Islamabad was seeking leverage with the Americans by doing “some work” in the nuclear sphere. But, he was clear, Pakistan was far from acquiring a deliverable nuclear weapon.
That New Delhi ignored this nuclear signal based on its own assessment of Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities at that time is another matter. Pakistan would soon become aware of India’s sanguine belief that Islamabad lacked nuclear prowess, prompting then president Zia to personally deliver a more explicit nuclear threat. Speaking to Time magazine on March 30, 1987, scarcely a month after the controversial interview was published, Zia stated that “Pakistan has the capability to build the Bomb whenever it wishes. Once you have the technology, which Pakistan has, you can do whatever you like.” He was careful, however, to add that Pakistan had no intention of manufacturing nuclear weapons and that he was only speaking about technological possibilities.
Implications for Future Signaling
After Nayar’s interview with Khan, India received what appears to have been a nuclear signal authorized by at least some level of Pakistan’s military and chose to dismiss it. But what would the reaction in New Delhi have been if Khan’s warning message had been received before the Brasstacks crisis abated? Would India have ignored it because it had been received through a very unusual channel? Or would New Delhi have reacted by launching preemptive attacks along the border? Would Khan’s message instead, not inconceivably, have stimulated negotiations to defuse the situation? Nothing can be asserted here with confidence in the absence of any precedent or prior understandings.
The historical record of U.S.-Soviet relations reveals that signaling between new nuclear powers is most fraught at the start of their mutual deterrence interactions. Obviously, in January 1987, Pakistan and India were new to understanding the nuclear dimensions of national security. But the Khan incident gives the unavoidable impression that confusion prevailed in Pakistan at that time in regard to the mechanics of nuclear signaling.
Whether General Beg was acting on his own in orchestrating the Nayar-Khan interview remains a mystery, since neither his immediate superior nor the president seems to have known about or approved the meeting. Assuming, however, that Beg’s superiors did know about it, how were they confident that this nuanced nuclear signal would be conveyed to the appropriate quarters in India? Could they have pursued this crude plan to use journalists for conveying sensitive nuclear signals?
Alternatively, this incident could have been indicative of an unfortunate characteristic of Pakistani military conduct, which is to indulge in impetuous behavior that ends in disaster and then requires considerable damage-limitation efforts. Previous crises sparked by attempts to infiltrate Indian-held territory, such as Operation Gibraltar in 1965 and at Kargil in 1999, are indicative of this type of behavior.
Clearly, the last word has not been heard on the Nayar-Khan interview, and more surprises could be in store. But one available lesson is that India and Pakistan must agree on the channels to convey nuclear signals if they ever become necessary again. There is a clear need to discuss such remote contingencies. In 1987, the two countries were posturing with “bombs in the basement,” but after 1998 nuclear tests by both India and Pakistan, there are no illusions left about their nuclear capabilities. A nuclear signal now would convey a threat that is seriously destabilizing.
Hopefully, such nuclear signaling will never become necessary. But, since hope is not a policy, this issue should be placed on the agenda of the next India-Pakistan dialogue on nuclear issues whenever the leadership of these two countries can agree on its necessity.
P. R. Chari is a visiting professor at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies in New Delhi, India. He is co-author of Brasstacks and Beyond: Perception and Management of Crisis in South Asia (Manohar, 1997) and Four Crises and a Peace Process: American Engagement in South Asia (Brookings, 2007), among other publications.