‘They’ are out to get us

Good advice by Irfan Hussain on the conspiracy theories circulating in Pakistan:

Recently, I met somebody, who has worked abroad for much of his life, who flies to London to listen to classical music concerts, and is otherwise a very urbane man. On our first meeting he seriously asked me for my views on 9/11: who dunnit, in brief? I said I thought the American authorities had documented the case against the 19 suicide bombers pretty thoroughly.

“Irfan Bhai,” he replied, his voice dropping to a conspiratorial whisper. “Sooner or later we will discover the Japanese were behind the attacks.” “The Japanese?” I asked, startled. This was a new one for me. His theory was that a group of Japanese patriots had planned the whole thing to avenge the American nuclear attacks on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Dream on, I said to myself.

[…] I recently met a gentleman who will go nameless here (suffice it to say he is widely respected for his integrity) who accused me of not paying enough attention to what he termed ‘the real conspiracies’ against Pakistan and the Muslim world. “Why else have democracy and education not taken root?” he demanded. I answered that western governments and institutions had been trying for years to persuade our leaders to educate our children and introduce democracy.

Surely nobody was stopping us from spending more on education, I suggested, just as nobody except authoritarian leaders were blocking democratic reforms.But I’m afraid I failed to convince him, and left after recounting my favourite conspiracy theory told to me in all seriousness by a serving general a few years ago. It seems that when the British colonialists were dishing out canal-irrigated land in Punjab and Sindh to their favourite toadies in the 19th century, they were deliberately building up a feudal class that would hinder Pakistan’s progress after it was created a century later.

I asked him if he was seriously suggesting that the Brits had foreseen the emergence of a separate Muslim state on the subcontinent decades before it was even dreamed of by its founding fathers. Absolutely, he replied: “Irfan Sahib, you don’t realize how far ahead the British and Americans plan”.

[…] Whenever I have argued that unless we educate our people, we will remain powerless and unable to compete economically and politically on the global stage, I have been shouted down. Readers have accused me of being ‘an agent of the West’ for suggesting that our weakness is our own fault and it is a waste of time and energy to blame others. The truth is that to escape from the poverty trap requires sustained hard work and sacrifice. It also needs long-term investment in human resource. These efforts are not as much fun as demonstrating outside the American embassy or sitting in drawing rooms and fulminating against the Zionist-imperialist plots against us.

Indeed, conspiracy theories help keep old enmities alive: if ordinary Indians and Pakistanis are convinced that everything that goes wrong in their countries is the other’s fault, then there will be popular support for the official antagonism that exists and is fostered by the two governments. This suits New Delhi and Islamabad just fine as there is no popular pressure on our rulers to resolve their differences and let us get on with life.

More often than not, conspiracy theories are positively harmful to the societies in which they breed. For example, many religious leaders in Pakistan denounce family planning as a western plot to keep the Muslim population low. In Pakistan, at least, this is one plot that has been thwarted with great success.

Impressions from Pakistan

I visited Pakistan after 5 years in December. I couldn’t do much there due to the weddings of both my brother and my brother-in-law. I stayed in Islamabad (my parents) and Wah Cantt (my in-laws), but also visited Karachi. But I thought it might be a good idea to blog about my observations.

Some things have changed in Pakistan while others remain the same. For one thing, air pollution has definitely increased, causing both my wife and me allergy problems. Traffic is as bad as ever. My Dad was initially afraid of letting me drive as he thought I had forgotten the cut-throat suicidal way people drive there. There is now toll collected on some highways in and around Islamabad. Military personnel are exempt from paying all toll except for the Islamabad-Lahore motorway (the only really limited-access highway in Pakistan.)

Religion seems to have taken on new life in Pakistan. I saw a lot of guys with beards and women/girls with scarves. These were no so common 5 years ago in the major cities. It especially seems that scarves for women are getting popular among high society. I don’t remember anyone wearing scarves 10 years ago. Women who wanted to cover their heads (most of the women) wore a “dupatta” or “chador”. Expression of religiosity and piety has also definitely increased.

Along with religion, anti-US feelings have swept the whole country. Almost everyone I met did not like the US, though to different levels. What I found surprising were the anti-US feelings among college-educated, well-to-do and moderate people. The Taliban themselves were not popular but the US action in Afghanistan was definitely disliked. Similarly, people were definitely against the war against Iraq. There was a general feeling that the US was against Muslims. Most people condemned the terrorist attacks of September 11 but talked in the same breath of it not being an act of any Muslim. Osama Bin Laden was only liked due to the fact that the US was after an “innocent” man. There were people who believed in strange conspiracy theories about the destruction of the WTC (4000 Jews, Mossad, CIA, Jews celebrating, explosives in WTC to bring it down, etc.) You probably have heard them all. Though I was probably not able to change anyone’s mind, I was at times able to dominate the debate and make people agree to some of my points. Despite all the anti-US feelings and conspiracy theories, I believe it is good that people there don’t condone the terrorism. That to me means they are still not beyond the pale.

It was amusing to hear people asking us about the problems and persecution we suffer here. On this topic, I believe I did a good job in convincing people. The most common topic of conversation was the special registration of non-immigrants from specific countries (including Pakistan.) I became convinced that though there might be some national security value to these regulations, it is definitely a huge public relations disaster alienating both the Pakistani visitors in the US and the general population back in Pakistan.

I also found it interesting that people’s feelings about the Musharraf government did not correlate with their feelings against the US. People who were in favor of Musharraf did not like the US as well. A caveat: Most of the virulently anti-US people were definitely anti-Musharraf also.

A.Q. Khan: Spreading Nuclear Technology

Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, who is sometimes referred to as the father of the Pakistani nuclear bomb, is now making news regarding nuclear proliferation.

From Dawn:

Last month, Dawn received a copy of the pamphlet purportedly distributed by A. Q. Khan Research Laboratories, offering vacuum technology for sale. The distributors said the technology can also be used in nuclear plants and thus the offer can be interpreted as promoting nuclear technology.

The pamphlet has a Rawalpindi address, P.O. Box 502, and has pictures of the equipment it promotes. It also has a picture of Dr Khan on the extreme right corner wearing the medals awarded by the government of Pakistan.

A message distributed with the pamphlet says: “Besides manufacturing of vacuum components and systems, our vacuum consultancy services are also available for system design, operational troubleshooting, quality assurance, maintenance, system development and human resource training.”

The distributors of the pamphlet seemed particularly concerned about the offer of “human resource training” because they claimed it was offering to train people for making a key component of a nuclear plant.

From the Los Angeles Times,

If one man sits at the nuclear fulcrum of the three countries President Bush calls the “axis of evil,” it may well be Abdul Qadeer Khan.

The 66-year-old metallurgist is considered the father of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb. He is a national hero at home, where hospitals bear his name and children sing his praises. U.S. and other Western officials do not. They say Khan is the only scientist known to be linked to the alleged efforts of North Korea, Iraq and Iran to develop nuclear weapons.

“If the international community had a proliferation most-wanted list, A. Q. Khan would be most wanted on the list,” said Robert J. Einhorn, who was assistant secretary of State for nonproliferation in the Clinton administration.

U.S. intelligence long has known of Khan’s activities. But the extent of his ties to all three “axis” nations became public only recently as North Korea admitted resuming its nuclear weapons effort, satellite photos showed that Iran may be conducting clandestine nuclear work and Khan’s name appeared in a letter offering to “manufacture a nuclear weapon” for Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

Pakistan denies giving nuclear assistance to other countries and insists that Khan has done no wrong. But under intense U.S. pressure, President Pervez Musharraf abruptly removed Khan as head of nuclear weapons development two years ago. Bush administration officials, wary of undermining a partner in the U.S.-declared war on terrorism, publicly downplay concerns about Islamabad’s possible role in spreading nuclear knowledge.

[…]Khan, with graying wavy hair and a salt-and-pepper mustache, has shrugged off charges that he is a nuclear Johnny Appleseed. Instead, he portrays himself as a scientist, a patriot — and a pacifist.

“Some people have the impression that because I built a nuclear bomb, I’m some sort of cruel person,” he told a Pakistani journalist in 2001. “That’s not the case. I built a weapon of peace, which seems hard to understand until you realize Pakistan’s nuclear capability is a deterrent to aggressors. There has not been a war in the last 30 years, and I don’t expect one in the future. The stakes are too high.”

Unlike two other senior Pakistani nuclear scientists who were questioned by U.S. and Pakistani authorities in 2001 after meetings with the Taliban and Osama bin Laden, Khan is not an Islamic radical.

“He is not a fundamentalist, though he is nationalist — and sometimes nationalism and religion get mixed up in Pakistan,” said Pervez Hoodbhoy, an anti-nuclear activist and MIT-trained physicist who teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital. “He has been in it for the power, the money and the glory.”

Khan has received all three. When he ran Pakistan’s bomb-building program, he reported directly to the nation’s leader and had free-flowing funds at his disposal. U.S. officials say Khan owns several palatial residences. And he is revered not only at home, where he is hailed for putting Pakistan on an equal nuclear footing with rival India, but also in much of the Muslim world, where he is lionized as the man who built the “Islamic bomb.”

I hope the Pakistani government and A.Q. Khan have more sense than that. But I am not exactly sure what to think of the LA Times report.

US/Pakistan Forces Clash

I know I am late on this news about the clash between US forces and Pakistani Border Scouts near the Afghan border (there’s a dispute about which side of the border it happened.) But then this is a weblog, not a news site. Plus I was enjoying my brother-in-law’s wedding the day it happened.

Unqualified Offerings has the Pakistani press stories about the incident. He says:

The writ of the Pakistani national government extends only tenuously to NWFP, and NWFP has longstanding blood and ideological ties to the Taliban. To the extent that Pakistan’s cooperation with the US is sincere, it faces a couple of unpleasant options: Rely on local troops whose enthusiasm for cooperating against the Taliban is low or bring in troops from outside with no local ties and maybe even antipathy —- a recipe for unrest.

I wish it was as simple as that. First, this incident did not happen in NWFP (North West Frontier Province), it happened in South Waziristan Agency which is part of FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas). The provincial government does not rule there. In fact, even the federal government doesn’t. These tribal areas, unlike the actual province of NWFP, have been more or less independent to run their local affairs. The British, before 1947, and the Pakistani government later have had some influence through the tribal elders (sometimes by bribing them.) FATA is sometimes considered part of NWFP because it should have been; it is populated by Pashtuns/Pathans who are the dominant ethnic group of NWFP (though not the only one; the Hazara area in NWFP is populated by Hindko-speaking people.)

The NWFP provincial assembly and government is dominated by the religious alliance, Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) [United Assembly for Action], a number of whose leaders are also Pashtun and some of whose constituent parties created the Taliban in their madrassas. In addition, the members of National Assembly from FATA (FATA is not represented in the provincial assembly) do not belong to any political party but are allied with the MMA. However, the tribal areas are fiercely independent, extremely backward and heavily armed. Almost every kid I saw there (quite a few years ago) was carrying an AK-47.

The reaction to this incident that I saw among people in Pakistan was definitely anti-American. For the people there, the most important detail was the 500-lb bomb that was dropped by the US. It fit the stereotype of the US military that just bombs from miles up.

Islamabad: Pakistani or not?

Ikram Saeed commented about Islamabad:

Any thoughts on Slamma-bad (that’s the hip-hop name)? I’ve been only once, and found it odd that the capital of Pakistan is such an un-Pakistani city. It felt like Muscut more than Multan.

It reminds me of an American friend who visited Pakistan. According to him, Islamabad is a city 10 miles outside Pakistan.

I lived in Islamabad for only 3 years before coming to the US. However my family have been living there for quite some time and I used to visit Islamabad quite a lot when I was in Pakistan. It is definitely very different from a typical Pakistani city; even from the big cosmopolitan ones like Lahore and Karachi. I remember Islamabad as a small well-planned city of government employees in the 1980s. It was a strange place, with no life. It used to become a ghost town during holidays as people went home. There really was nothing much to do. I have seen Islamabad grow over the years into something close to a city with life of its own. Now at least there are people who call it home. The shopping centers finally have some character. Karachi company, Aabpara, Jinnah supermarket are finally places to shop and wander. There’s nothing like Anarkali, Liberty market, etc. (Lahore) in Islamabad. It doesn’t even have good restaurants, nothing like Lahore or Karachi. You can have Italian or Chinese cuisine in Islamabad, but the local food is just bland.

What I like about Islamabad though is that it is well-planned. There are good roads and residential and commercial areas were designated in the original master plan of the city. Driving in Pakistan is really crazy; Islamabad however has much better traffic. For most of the cities of Pakistan, growth has been haphazard with no input from city planners. Islamabad however is a modern city. It was founded in 1960 specifically to be the capital. That is its virtue as well as its sin. It was created by government bureaucrats for bureaucrats, so it has no soul. But it is no longer a small or medium-sized city, the capital territory, including the city and some surrounding rural areas, has about 950,000 residents in about 900 square kilometers (approx. 350 sq.miles) while the city of Islamabad had 529,000 residents in 1998 according to the the Census Organization of Pakistan.

Joke of a Prime Minister

This is a funny Prime Minister we have got in Pakistan:

Concurring with the suggestion that the floor-crossing law [this law disallows parliamentarians to change parties] was a good law, Prime Minister Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali, however, maintained that at times you have to ‘close your eyes’ to such things to help the new and younger parliamentarians find their feet in the democratic setup.

When asked about reports that some of his cabinet ministers were still being investigated by the National Accountability Bureau and that three of them were still on the Exit Control List [a list of people not allowed to leave the country usually due to flight risk in criminal/corruption cases, but also used against political opponents], the prime minister, without refuting the allegation, said that no one was above the law and that he would look into the matter and try to find out the actual situation.

On being asked about the alleged deal between the government and the MMA under which two former provincial ministers —- both belonging to JUI and undergoing imprisonment in embezzlement cases —- were released in return for the MMA’s support for the government formation in Balochistan, the prime minister, again without refuting the allegation, said the two were released on parole.

“Anybody can be released on parole at the discretion of the government after he has completed a certain period of his incarceration,” he added.

The prime minister reiterated that he would like the party which had the largest number of votes in Sindh to form the government but added that if for some reason it failed to do so, then the government would have to intervene and try to form a government in that province in order to save the elected House from collapsing.

Mr Jamali said he welcomed criticism and expected friends to give him timely advice, but hoped that his well-wishers would avoid harsh words while criticizing him.

I can’t stop laughing.

Pakistan Army’s Long Tentacles

Washington Post has an article on the perks the military in Pakistan enjoys as a result of its hold on power for 27 of the last 55 years. Here is an excerpt:

There is no denying the military’s dominant role in Pakistan. The military owns the best farmland and several of the largest industrial conglomerates. Retired or active-duty military officers run the ports, postal service, electric utilities, sports federations, telecommunications authority, culture ministry, mineral development agency, anti-drug police, railroads, civil aviation authority, national shipping company and Pakistan’s biggest steel mill. They hold top administrative posts at the best universities. Many ambassadors are retired officers.