Book Review : Pakistan’s Pathway to the Bomb: Ambitions, Politics, and Rivalries by Mansoor Ahmed

 By Namita Barthwal

Book Review : Pakistan’s Pathway to the Bomb: Ambitions, Politics, and Rivalries by Mansoor Ahmed  South Asia in World Affair Series, Georgetown University Press. (2022) 304pp, EISBN: 978-1-64712-232-4

The book “Pakistan’s Pathways to the Bomb: Ambitions, Politics, and Rivalries” by Mansoor Ahmed provides a comprehensive analysis of Pakistan’s nuclear development, emphasising the internal dynamics, key personalities, and bureaucratic politics that shaped the country’s nuclear trajectory. The book is a part of the “South Asia in World Affairs” series, edited by T.V. Paul, and aims to offer insightful analysis of South Asian politics, security and international relations. The book spans five decades, beginning from late 1950s, detailing various projects, challenges, and decisions that contributed to the development of Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities. It sheds light on key drivers and determinants of the process, rather than the external causes of vertical proliferation in Pakistan, filling an important gap in understanding Pakistan’s nuclear history.

The research methodology employed by Mansoor Ahmed in the book is thorough and multifaceted combining primary and secondary sources, interviews, and a critical examination of existing literature to provide comprehensive analysis of Pakistan’s nuclear programme. The author’s approach allows for a nuanced understanding of internal dynamics, and the role of influential technocrats – particularly, Munir Ahmad Khan, chairman of the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) who looked after various projects related to nuclear weapon designs, manufacturing and testing infrastructure, and the nuclear fuel cycle, and Abdul Qadeer Khan, head of Khan Research Laboratories (KRL). The book discusses the impact of Munir Ahmad Khan and Abdul Qadeer Khan’s ambitions and rivalries on the nuclear programme.  He mentions that heads of both PAEC and KRL directly reported to the Prime Minister. Over the years, they increasingly began to equate the survival of Pakistan with the acquisition of nuclear weapons through their respective organisation. The book also mentions the political polarisation and tension between Bengalis and Non-Bengalis, in 1960s, at the Pakistan Institute of Nuclear Science and Technology (PINSTECH), which created a non-conducive environment for productive work and made the overall nuclear programme directionless.

In the book, Mansoor Ahmad challenges the conventional wisdom that security concerns and the threat from India were the key drivers of Pakistan’s nuclear ambition. The author addresses seven myths perpetuated by Pakistan’s establishment and conventional wisdom that dominate discussion about Pakistan’s nuclear programme history. These myths are as follows:

  1. Myth of Individual Contribution. The book challenges the myth that a single individual was integrally responsible for Pakistan’s nuclear development.  It emphasises the collective effort of numerous scientists, engineers, and officials. A.Q. Khan, in particular, is highlighted as a mythmaker who personified Pakistan’s nuclear capability, creating a narrative centred around his contribution.
  2. Myth of Bureaucratic Unity. The author dispels the notion of unified bureaucratic efforts, highlighting instead the rivalries, competition, and turf wars within Pakistan’s establishment dealing with the nuclear programme. The nuclear programme was deeply divided and polarised with fierce competition between KRL and PAEC.
  3. Myth of Reactive Nuclear Development. The book contests the popular belief that Pakistan’s nuclear programme was solely a reactive measure to India’s 1974 nuclear test- ‘Smiling Buddha’. It provides evidence that Pakistan’s nuclear elite had been pushing for the dual use of nuclear energy- civil and defence, since the 1960s.
  4. Myth of Nuclear Feasibility. Nuclear mythmakers played a crucial role in convincing Pakistani society of the technical feasibility of developing nuclear weapons. Instead of educating public that developing nuclear weapons requires substantial time and resources. The mythmakers promoted nuclear nationalism to further their influence in decision-making. The book highlights the importance of these individuals like A.Q. Khan in shaping public opinion and policy direction.
  5. Myth of Fissile Material Production Paths. The author challenges the myth that the enriched uranium route was launched only after the plutonium route was blocked. The author emphasises that these paths to producing fissile materials for nuclear weapons were not mutually exclusive and were integral to mastering the complete nuclear fuel cycle. In simpler words, both Uranium enrichment and Plutonium production are crucial components of the nuclear fuel cycle.
  6. Myth of Autonomy and Accountability. The book also addresses the myth of autonomy and accountability, particularly in the context of A.Q. Khan and his KRL. It highlights how Khan’s mythmaking insulated him from accountability, even after his network was exposed to the world.
  7. Myth of National Security. The nuclear mythmakers in Pakistan equated the country’s survival with the acquisition of nuclear weapons, creating a narrative that emphasised the necessity of nuclear weapons for national security.

The author also discusses numerous technological challenges Pakistan faced in their nuclear programme. This includes restrictions on technology acquisition and non-proliferation sanctions. The country had to resort to innovative and local improvisation, termed jugaardh, to overcome these challenges. The introduction of strict secrecy and compartmentalisation within various branches and projects of the nuclear programme was another challenge. The nuclear programme, particularly the Uranium enrichment project under A.Q. Khan faced challenges in its research and development phase. There were initial setbacks, and there was a need for recruitment of Pakistani engineers from abroad and wholesale procurement of essential equipment and materials. The one critical challenge for Pakistan, even today, is to find a balance between A.Q. Khan’s nuclear contributions against his involvement in the illicit trade of nuclear technology.

In conclusion, the book critically examines previous accounts of Pakistan’s nuclear programme, challenging misplaced beliefs and providing a more accurate and detailed narrative. The author engages with existing literature, including works like “Nuclear Black Markets” by the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS), “Eating Grass” by Feroz Khan, and “Pakistan’s Nuclear Bomb” by Hassan Abbas, to recalibrate the understanding of Pakistan’s nuclear history.


[1] Mansoor Ahmed is a senior fellow at the Centre for International Strategic Studies in Islamabad, Pakistan. He is a former Stanton Nuclear Security junior faculty fellow (2015-16) and postdoctoral research fellow (2016-18) with International Security Program and the Project on Managing the Atom at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center. He also served as lecturer in the Department of Defense and Strategic Studies, Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad, from 2011-15.

[2] Other notable work of Mansoor Ahmed:  Pakistan’s Tactical Nuclear Weapons and Their Impact on Stability – Carnegie Endowment for International Peace