Last week, the US State department declassified its top-secret documents from 1984-85 which focus on the Pakistani nuclear programme. The CIA analysis, and the talking points for the US Ambassador to Islamabad while handing over President Ronald Reagan’s letter to General Zia-ul Haq, show that the US warned Pakistan about an Indian military attack on the Pakistani nuclear reactor at Kahuta.
But the Americans were not alone in anticipating an Indian attack. Prof Rajesh Rajagopalan of JNU recently pointed to The End of the Cold War and the Third World: New Perspectives on Regional Conflict, a book by Sergey Radchenko and Artemy M. Kalinovsky based on the declassified documents of the Eastern Block. Radchenko says that documents in the Hungarian archives show that the Soviets had shared with the Hungarians India’s plans to attack Kahuta.
It is not clear though, Rajagopalan says, if the Soviets actually had access to any Indian plans or were only reporting widespread rumours. The rumours were indeed widespread, and The Washington Post had run a front-page story on December 20, 1982 headlined, ‘India said to eye raid on Pakistan’s A-plants’. It said military advisers had proposed an attack to prime minister Indira Gandhi in March 1982 but she had rejected it.
In his book, India’s Nuclear Policy —1964-98: A Personal Recollection, K Subrahmanyam recollected that the Indian proposal to Pakistan for non-attack on each other’s nuclear facilities, which he suggested to Rajiv Gandhi, was an outcome of such rumours in the Western media. Although the ‘Agreement on the Non-Attack of Nuclear Facilities between Indian and Pakistan’ was first verbally agreed upon in 1985, it was formally signed in 1988 and ratified in 1991. Since 1992, India and Pakistan have been exchanging the list of their nuclear facilities on January 1 every year.
But how close was India to attacking Kahuta in the 1980s? The first time India is believed to have considered such an attack is in 1981. The idea obviously originated from the daring Israeli attack of June 7, 1981, that destroyed the under-construction Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak. Eight F-16s of the Israeli Air Force flew more than 600 miles in the skies of three enemy nations to destroy the target and returned unscathed.
In 1996, WPS Sidhu, senior fellow for foreign policy at Brookings India, was the first to state that after the induction of Jaguars, Indian Air Force (IAF) had conducted a brief study in June 1981 on the feasibility of attacking Kahuta. The study concluded that India could “attack and neutralise” Kahuta but feared that such an attack would result in a full-blown war between India and Pakistan. This was besides the concerns that an Indian attack will beget an immediate retaliatory — some say, even pre-emptive — Pakistani air strike on Indian nuclear facilities.
In their book, Deception: Pakistan, the United States and the Global Nuclear Conspiracy, Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark claim that Indian military officials secretly travelled to Israel in February 1983 to buy electronic warfare equipment to neutralise Kahuta’s air defences. Israel reportedly also provided India with technical details of the F-16 aircraft in exchange for Indians providing them some details about the MiG-23 aircraft. In mid- to late-1983, according to strategic affairs expert Bharat Karnad, Indira Gandhi asked the IAF once again to plan for an air strike on Kahuta.
The mission was cancelled after Pakistani nuclear scientist Munir Ahmed Khan met Indian Atomic Energy Commission chief-designate Raja Ramanna at an international meet in Vienna and threatened a retaliatory strike on Bhabha Atomic Research Centre at Trombay.
The next time India is believed to have seriously considered attacking Kahuta was in September-October 1984. Details of the Pakistani nuclear programme crossing the weaponisation enrichment threshold had then begun to emerge. As seen from documents declassified last week, on September 16, 1984, US Ambassador Dean Hinton told Zia that if the US were to see signs that India was preparing for an attack, they would notify Pakistan immediately.
On September 22, a reliable source from a foreign country — later assumed to be the CIA Deputy Director — reported to the Pakistani top brass that there was the possibility of an Indian air strike. The same day, ABC television also reported that a preemptive Indian attack on Pakistani nuclear facilities was imminent, which was based on a briefing made by the CIA to a US Senate intelligence subcommittee.
But India did not go ahead with its plans to attack Kahuta because the element of surprise was lost. According to Subrahmanyam, an increase in air defences around Kahuta was “proof, if any more were needed, that our covert intentions to hit Kahuta were not secret anymore”.
It has also been rumoured that Israeli air force was part of the plans to attack Kahuta in 1984 because it did not want to see an “Islamic Bomb” developed by Pakistan. Israel was supposed to lead this attack and not merely play the role of advising the IAF. Bharat Karnad has written that Israeli aircraft were to be staged from Jamnagar airfield in Gujarat, refuel at a satellite airfield in North India and track the Himalayas to avoid early radar detection, but Indira Gandhi eventually vetoed the idea. Levy and Scott-Clark though claim that Indira Gandhi had signed off on the Israeli-led operation in March 1984 but backed off after the US state department warned India “the US will be responsive if India persists”.
Conversations with some people associated with the IAF in the early 1980s support the idea of an Israeli connection to Indian plans to attack Kahuta. It tells us that India had seriously considered attacking Kahuta three decades ago but chose not to, mainly due to the fears of a retaliatory Pakistani strike on Trombay and the danger of an isolated strike escalating into a full-blown war.