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About Pervez Hoodbhoy

Pervez Hoodbhoy is professor of nuclear and high-energy physics at Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad, Pakistan.

Articles by Pervez Hoodbhoy

This week's editor

NSS, editor

Niki Seth-Smith is a freelance journalist and contributing editor to 50.50.

Constitutional conventions: best practice

Drones: theirs and ours

Vocal as they are about being bombed from the sky, most Pakistanis – including many on the left – suddenly lose their voice when it comes to the human (Muslim) drone, says Pervez Hoodbhoy

Pakistan: the road from hell

Pakistan's future is uncertain. But a few things can be said with something approaching certainty about what will not happen. The country will not break up; there will not be another military coup; the Taliban will not seize the presidency; Pakistan's nuclear weapons will not go astray; and the Islamic sharia will not become the law of the land.

Pervez Hoodbhoy is professor of nuclear and high-energy physics at Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad, Pakistan

This is an edited version of an article published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (June 2009)

Also by Pervez Hoodbhoy on openDemocracy:

"Bizarre new world" (17 September 2001)

"Were we hijacked on 9/11?" (10 September 2002)

"Pakistan: inside the nuclear closet" (3 March 2004)

"The nuclear complex: America, the bomb, and Osama bin Laden" (16 February 2006) - with Zia Mian

"Barack Obama's triple test" (21 January 2009)
That's the good news. It conflicts with opinions in the establishment media in some western countries, as well as with some in the Barack Obama administration. David Kilcullen, a top adviser to General David Petraeus, said in March 2009 that state collapse could occur within six months. This was and remains highly improbable.

Now, the bad news: the clouds over the future of Pakistan's state and society are getting darker. The speed of social decline has accelerated, surprising even many who have long warned that religious extremism is devouring the country.

The path to Islamabad

Here is how it happened. The United States invasion of Afghanistan devastated the Taliban. Many fighters were products of madrasas in Pakistan, and their trauma was in part shared by their erstwhile benefactors in Pakistan's military and intelligence. The army, recognising that this force would remain important for maintaining Pakistani influence in Afghanistan - and to keep the low-intensity war in Kashmir going - secretly welcomed them onto Pakistani soil. The process of rebuilding and rearming was quick, especially as after initial success the US campaign in Afghanistan went awry. The then president Pervez Musharraf's strategy of playing both sides against each other worked for a time. But Washington's demands to dump the Taliban became more insistent, and the Taliban also grew angry at this double-game. As the army's goals and tactics lost coherence, the Taliban advanced.

In 2007, the movement of Pakistani Taliban - Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) - formally announced its existence. The movement's blitzkrieg of merciless beheadings of soldiers and suicide-bombings drove out the army from much of the frontier province. By early 2009, it held about 10% of Pakistan's territory.

Even then, few Pakistanis saw the Taliban as the enemy. There were even many apologists for the Taliban, for example among opinion-forming local TV anchors that whitewashed their atrocities and and insisted that they shouldn't be resisted by force. Others supported them as fighters against US imperial might. The government, beset by ideological confusion and with no effective  propaganda response, had no cogent response to the claim that Pakistan was made for Islam and that the Taliban were Islamic fighters.

An immense price was paid for the government's prevarication. A cowardly state allowed fanatics to devastate hitherto peaceful Swat, once an idyllic tourist-friendly valley. Citizens were deprived of their fundamental rights. Women were lashed in public, hundreds of girls' schools were blown up, non-Muslims had to pay a special tax (jizya), and every form of art and music was forbidden. Policemen deserted en masse, and institutions of the state crumbled. The Taliban, thrilled by their success, violated the Nizam-e-Adl regulation in April 2009 only days after it was negotiated. They quickly moved to capture more territory in the adjacent area of Buner - barely 120 kilometres from Islamabad. The movement's spokesman, Muslim Khan, boasted that the capital would be captured soon. The army and government still dithered, while the public remained largely opposed to the use of military force.

Among openDemocracy's many articles on Pakistan:

Ehsan Masood, "Pakistan: the army as the state" (12 April 2007)

Ayesha Siddiqa, "Pakistan's permanent crisis" (15 May 2007)

Anatol Lieven, "At the Red Mosque in Islamadad" (4 June 2007)

Maruf Khwaja, "The war for Pakistan" (24 July 2007)

Saskia Sassen, "Lahore: urban space, niche repression" (21 November 2007)

Ayesha Siddiqa, "Pakistan after Benazir Bhutto" (28 December 2007)

Fred Halliday, "The assassin's age: Pakistan in the world" (28 December 2007)

Maruf Khwaja, "Pakistan: dynasty vs democracy" (9 January 2008)

Irfan Husain, "Pakistan's judgment day" (22 February 2008)

Irfan Husain. "Pervez Musharraf: the commando who couldn't" (19 August 2008)

Paul Rogers, "Pakistan: the new frontline" (18 September 2008)

Shaun Gregory, "The Pakistan army and the Afghanistan war" (25 November 2008)

Shaun Gregory, "Mumbai: Pakistan's moment of opportunity" (3 December 2008)

Paul Rogers, "The AfPak war: three options" (25 February 2009)

Paul Rogers, "A three-front war: Iraq, AfPak...Washington" (20 March 2009)

Nadeem Ul Haque, "How to solve Pakistan's problem" (24 April 2009)

Paul Rogers, "Pakistan: sources of turmoil" (30 April 2009)

Anatol Lieven, "Pakistan's American problem" (6 May 2009)

Shaun Gregory, "Pakistan and the ‘AfPak' strategy" (28 May 2008)
At this point, a miracle of sorts happened. Sufi Mohammed, the illiterate and aging leader of the Swat sharia movement, lost his good sense to excessive exuberance. While addressing a huge victory rally in early May, he declared that democracy and Islam were incompatible; rejected Pakistan's Islamic constitution and courts; and accused Pakistan's fanatically right-wing Islamic parties of mild heresy. Mohammed's comments - even for a Pakistani public enamoured by the call to sharia - were a bit too much. The army, now with public support for the first time since the birth of the insurgency, finally mustered the will to fight.

The Taliban's game

Today, that fight is on. A major displacement of population, estimated at 3 million, is in process. This tragedy could have been avoided if the army hadn't nurtured extremists earlier. For the moment, the Taliban are retreating - and even being assailed by local tribesmen in parts of the Upper Dir district. But it will be a long haul to eliminate them from the complex mountainous terrain of Swat and Malakand. To wrest North and South Waziristan from their grasp will cost even more. Army actions in the tribal areas, and retaliatory suicide-bombings by the Taliban in the cities, are likely to extend into the foreseeable future.

Meanwhile, the cancerous offshoots of extremist ideology continue to spread. Another TTP has established itself - Tehrik-e-Taliban Punjab. That could mean major conflict eventually shifting from Pakistan's tribal peripheries to the heartland: southern Punjab. Indeed, the Punjabi Taliban are busy increasing their operations, including an attack on the police and intelligence headquarters in Lahore on 27 May.

What exactly do the Pakistani Taliban want? They share with their Afghan counterparts the goal of fighting the United States. But still more important is the wish to replace secular and traditional law and customs in Pakistan's tribal areas with their version of the sharia. The logic of this aim (shared with religious political parties such as Jamaat-e-Islami) is a total transformation of society. It entails the elimination of music, art, entertainment, and all manifestations of modernity and westernism. The accessory goals include destroying the Shi'a - whom the Sunni Taliban regard as heretics - and expelling the few surviving native Christians, Sikhs, and Hindus from the frontier province. While extremist leaders such as Baitullah Mehsud and Maulana Fazlullah derive support from excluded social groups, they don't demand employment, land-reform, better healthcare, or more social services. This isn't a liberation movement by a long shot, although some marginalised Pakistani leftists embrace this delusion.

It is impossible for tribal insurgents to overrun Islamabad and Pakistan's main cities, which are protected by thousands of heavily armed military and paramilitary troops. But rogue elements within the military and intelligence agencies have instigated or organised suicide-attacks against their own colleagues. Now, dazed by the brutality of these attacks, the officer-corps appears at last to be moving away from its earlier sympathy and support for extremism. This makes a seizure of the nuclear arsenal improbable. But Pakistan's "urban Taliban", rather than illiterate tribal fighters, do pose a nuclear risk. There are indeed more than a few scientists and engineers in the nuclear establishment with extreme religious views.

While they aspire to state power, the Taliban have been able to achieve considerable success without it. Through terror tactics and suicide-bombings they have made fear ubiquitous. Women are being forced into burqas, and anxious private employers and government departments have advised their male employees in Peshawar and other cities to wear shalwar-kameez rather than trousers. Co-educational schools across Pakistan are increasingly fearful of attacks; some are converting to girls-only or boys-only schools. Video-shops are going out of business, and native musicians and dancers have fled or changed their profession. A sterile Saudi-style Wahhabism is beginning to impact upon Pakistan's once-vibrant culture and society.

It could be far worse. If, for example, General Ashfaq Kayani were overthrown in a coup by radical Islamist officers who seize control of the country's nuclear weapons, making intervention by outside forces impossible; and if jihad for liberating Kashmir is subsequently declared as Pakistan's highest priority and earlier policies for crossing the "line of control" (LoC) are revived; if Shi'a are expelled to Iran, and Hindus forced into India; if ethnic and religious minorities in the northern areas flee Pashtun invaders; if anti-Taliban forces such as the ethnic Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) and the Baluch (Baloch) nationalists are decisively crushed by Islamists; and if sharia is declared across the country. All this still seems improbable - as long as the army stays together.

The way forward

What can the United States, which is still the world's pre-eminent power, do to turn the situation around? Amazingly little.

In spite of being on US life-support, Pakistan is probably the most anti-American country in the world. It has a long litany of grievances. Some are pan-Islamic, but others derive from its bitter experiences of being a US ally in the 1980s. Pakistan, once at the cutting-edge of the US-organised jihad against the Soviet Union, was dumped once the war was over and left to deal with numerous toxic consequences.

The festering resentments in Pakistan produced a paranoid mindset that blames Washington for all of Pakistan's ills - old and new. A meeting of young people that I addressed in Islamabad recently included many who thought that the Taliban are composed of US agents paid to create instability so that Pakistan's nuclear weapons could be seized by Washington. Other such absurd conspiracy theories also enjoy huge currency.

Nevertheless, the United States isn't powerless. The chances of engaging with Pakistan positively have improved under the Barack Obama administration. Any real progress toward a Palestinian state and dealing with Muslims globally would have enormous resonance in Pakistan. The US president's speech in Cairo on 4 June 2009, announcing a "new beginning" with the Muslim world, is a promising step in this regard.

Pakistan's financial support must not be cut, or economic collapse (and certain Taliban victory) would follow in a matter of months. The government and army must be kept afloat until Pakistan is fully ready to take on extremism by itself (although better financial monitoring is needed). The United States also should initiate a conference that brings Iran, India, and China together. Each of these countries must recognise that extremism represents a regional as well as global danger, and they must formulate an action-plan aimed at squeezing the extremists.

Pakistan's political leadership and army have a key responsibility in all this. They must face the extremist threat, accept the United States and India as partners rather than adversaries, enact major reforms in income and land distribution, revamp the education and legal systems, and address the real needs of citizens. Most important, Pakistan will have to clamp down on the fiery mullahs who spout hatred from mosques, and stop suicide-bomber production in madrasas. For better or for worse, it will be for Pakistanis alone to figure out how.

Barack Obama’s triple test

The new United States president faces challenges in almost every area of the world. The most urgent and unavoidable are Palestine-Israel, Iran, and Pakistan-Afghanistan.

First, a Palestinian state side-by-side with Israel must become Barack Obama's top foreign-policy priority. The longer the Palestinians remain a displaced people, the more dangerous the world becomes. Over time, Palestine has acquired the status of a cause celebre for political Islam and a symbol of America siding with the powerful against the weak. Unless the Palestinians are seen to get a modicum of justice, the entire middle east is doomed to eternal cycles of violence and destruction.

Pervez Hoodbhoy is professor of nuclear and high-energy physics at Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad, Pakistan

Also by Pervez Hoodbhoy on openDemocracy:

"Bizarre new world" (17 September 2001)

"Were we hijacked on 9/11?" (10 September 2002)

"Pakistan: inside the nuclear closet" (3 March 2004)

"The nuclear complex: America, the bomb, and Osama bin Laden" (16 February 2006) - with Zia Mian
The fact that there is bitter rivalry between the two main Palestinian movements, Hamas and Fatah, makes the problem ever harder to solve. But as long as the issue of statehood is unresolved and conflict continues, the more Muslim anger over Palestine will mutate into new and still less predictable forms. I estimate that the crushed body of every dead Palestinian child in Gaza, flashed on TV screens across the world, costs the United States about $100 million in terms of the protection it must buy to defend itself against retributive Islamist terrorism.

Second, the US must talk to Iran. As Iran gets closer to making a nuclear weapon, there is a danger that a war of words between Washington and Tehran could trigger a real war is real. The choice as US secretary of state of Hillary Clinton, who made hawkish statements about Iran during the election campaign (echoed in part by Obama himself) on balance increases the danger.

Iran's quest for nukes is dangerous and condemnable, and sanctions are quite justifiable in my opinion. But the United States lacks a moral argument for war, because of its own nuclear stance and in light of the fact that it provided Iran with the country's initial nuclear capability during the Shah's rule. Moreover, the US has to various degrees rewarded several countries that have made nukes surreptiously: Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea. Before and after more hardline statements on the campaign trail, Obama has offered to negotiate with Iran: a good proposal that he should carry through.

After all, nothing has been gained by rejecting Iran's numerous overtures, from the comprehensive approach suggested by Tehran in 2003 to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's letter to President George W Bush in 2006. North Korea's nuclear test in October 2006 also showed that US refusals to hold one-on-one talks only reinforced the problem. By contrast, nuclear negotiations in exchange for oil have partially succeeded in halting the North Korean nuclear developments.

Third, the US must take seriously the impact of "collateral damage" on civilian populations as it pursues the war against Islamists.

Since I am deeply fearful of Taliban successes in Pakistan and Afghanistan, I have mixed feelings about Obama's planned "surge" in Afghanistan. But heavy use of airpower has led to large numbers of non-combatant casualties. Often the coalition forces refuse to acknowledge such deaths; when confronted with incontrovertible evidence, they apologise and issue miserably small compensation. This approach swells the Taliban's ranks. If there is to be any chance of containing the Taliban menace, the coalition forces must set zero innocent civilian casualties as their goal.

In relation to the larger global environment, America needs an attitudinal change. It must repudiate grand imperial designs as well as its exceptionalism. The notion of total planetary control through "full-spectrum dominance" guided the previous Republican administration well before 9/11. The Democrats, many of whom later turned against the Iraq war, limit their criticisms to the strategy and conduct of the war, the lies and disinformation dispensed by the White House, suspicious deals with defence contractors - rather than its very conception and underlying attitudes (see Paul Rogers, "The world as a battlefield", 9 February 2006).

Barack Obama must convince Americans of the need to obey international laws and etiquette, that they do not have some divine mission to fulfil and that its sinking economy cannot afford such fantasies now or in the future.

The lengthy political transition in the United States is over. The perils facing the new president are clear. He will need much more than rhetoric to meet them.

The nuclear complex: America, the bomb, and Osama bin Laden

The twin ambitions of American empire and radical Islamism could bring nuclear catastrophe to the world. A different ethical and political project is urgently needed, say the Pakistani scholars Pervez Hoodbhoy & Zia Mian.

Pakistan: inside the nuclear closet

Abdul Qadeer Khan, regarded as the “father of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb”, was accused then pardoned by President Musharraf for his role in trafficking nuclear technology. What sort of man is Qadeer, and what does his story reveal about the United States’s role in Pakistan’s nuclear proliferation? A nuclear physicist from Pakistan reports.

Three horses of Bush

It is 12 January 2003 and US president Bush has rallied his troops for what he calls “The first war of the 21st century”. What is your view of this crisis, where, briefly, do you stand? This is the question we are putting to people around the world, especially those with their own public reputation and following. Our aim, to help create a truly global debate all can identify with.

Were we hijacked on 9/11?

Some of us spoke out for the United States after 9/11. Have we been taken for a ride? Al-Qaida and the Bush regime share a language. Our survival depends on a different, global identity prevailing.

Bizarre new world

After Tuesday’s terror attacks, Samuel Huntington’s evil desire for a clash between civilizations may well come true. The crack that divided Muslims everywhere from the rest of the world is no longer a crack. It is a gulf that, if not bridged, will surely destroy both sides.

For much of the world, it was the indescribable savagery of seeing jet-loads of innocent human beings piloted into buildings filled with other innocent human beings. It was the sheer horror of watching people jump from the 80th floor of the collapsing World Trade Centre rather than be consumed by the inferno inside. Many Muslims also saw it exactly this way, and felt the searing agony no less sharply. The heads of states of Muslim countries – except Saddam Hussein – condemned the attacks. Leaders of Muslim communities in the US, Canada, Britain, Europe, and Australia have made impassioned denunciations and pleaded for the need to distinguish between ordinary Muslims and extremists.

But the pretence that reality goes no further must be abandoned. One would like to dismiss televised images showing Palestinian expressions of joy as unrepresentative, reflective only of the crass political immaturity of a handful. But this may be wishful thinking. Pakistan Television, operating under strict control of the government, is attempting to portray a nation united in condemnation of the attack. The truth lies elsewhere, as I learn from students at my university here in Islamabad, from conversations with people in the streets, and from the Urdu press. A friend tells me that crowds gathered around public TV sets at Islamabad airport had cheered as the WTC came crashing down. It makes one feel sick from inside.

A bizarre new world awaits us, where old rules of social and political behavior have broken down and new ones are yet to be defined. Catapulted into a situation of darkness and horror by the extraordinary force of events, we need a response that is moral, and not based upon considerations of power and practicality. It must begin with a clearly defined moral supposition – the fundamental equality of all human beings.

Before all else, Black Tuesday’s mass murder must be condemned in the harshest possible terms without qualification or condition, without seeking causes or reasons that may even remotely be used to justify it, and without regard for the national identity of the victims or the perpetrators. The demented, suicidal fury of the attackers led to heinous acts of indiscriminate and wholesale murder that have changed the world for the worse. A moral position must begin with unequivocal condemnation, the absence of which could eliminate even the language by which people can communicate.

Analysis comes second, but it is just as essential. No “terrorist” gene is known to exist or is likely to be found. Therefore, presumably born normal, the attackers and their supporters were afflicted by something that caused their metamorphosis from human beings capable of gentleness and affection into desperate, maddened, fiends with nothing but murder in their hearts and minds.

What was it?

Tragically, CNN and the US media have so far made little attempt to understand this affliction. The cost, if this omission is to persist, cannot be anything but terrible. What we have seen is probably the first of similar tragedies that may come to define the 21st century as the century of terror. There is much claptrap about “fighting terrorism”; billions are likely to be poured into surveillance, fortifications, and emergency plans, not to mention the ridiculous idea of missile defence systems.

But, as a handful of suicide bombers armed with no more than knives and box-cutters have shown with such devastating effectiveness, all this means precisely nothing. Modern nations are far too vulnerable to be protected – a suitcase nuclear device could flatten not just a building or two, but all of Manhattan. Simple logic says that the chances of survival are best if one goes to the roots of terror.

Only a fool can believe that the services of a suicidal terrorist can be purchased, or that they can be bred at will anywhere. Instead, their breeding grounds are in refugee camps and in other rubbish dumps of humanity, abandoned by civilization and left to rot. A global superpower, indifferent to their plight, and manifestly on the side of their tormentors, has bred boundless hatred for its policies.

In supreme arrogance, indifferent to world opinion, the US openly sanctions the daily dispossession and torture of the Palestinians by Israeli occupation forces. The deafening silence over the massacres in Qana, Sabra, and Shatila refugee camps, and the video-gamed slaughter by the Pentagon of 70,000 people in Iraq, has brought out the worst that humans are capable of. In the words of Robert Fisk, “those who claim to represent a crushed, humiliated population struck back with the wickedness and awesome cruelty of a doomed people”.

It is stupid and cruel to derive satisfaction from such revenge, or from the indisputable fact that Osama and his kind are the blowback of the CIA’s misadventures in Afghanistan. Instead, the real question is: where do we, the inhabitants of this planet, go from here? What is the lesson to be learnt from the still smouldering ruins of the World Trade Centre?

If the lesson is that America needs to assert its military might, then the future will be as grim as can be. Indeed, Secretary Colin Powell has promised “more than a single reprisal raid”. But against whom? And to what end? No one doubts that it is ridiculously easy for the US to unleash carnage. But the bodies of a few thousand dead Afghans will not bring peace, or reduce by one bit the chances of a still worse terrorist attack.

This is not an argument for inaction: if they can be found, Osama and his gang, as well as others, must be brought to justice. But indiscriminate slaughter can do nothing except add fuel to existing hatreds. Today, the US is the victim. But the carpet-bombing of Afghanistan will squander the huge swell of sympathy in its favour the world over. It will create nothing but revulsion, and promote never-ending tit-for-tat killings.

Ultimately, the security of the United States lies in its re-engaging with the people of the world, especially with those that it has grievously harmed. As a great country, possessing an admirable constitution that protects the life and liberty of its citizens, it must extend its definition of humanity to cover all peoples of the world. It must respect international treaties such as those on greenhouse gases and biological weapons, stop trying to force a new Cold War by pushing through NMD, pay its UN dues, and cease the aggrandizement of wealth in the name of globalization.

But it is not only the US that needs to learn new modes of behaviour. There are important lessons for Muslims too, particularly those living in the US, Canada, and Europe. Last year I heard the arch-conservative head of Pakistan’s Jamat-i-Islami, Qazi Husain Ahmad, begin his lecture before an American audience in Washington with high praise for a “pluralist society where I can wear the clothes I like, pray at a mosque, and preach my religion”. Certainly, such freedoms do not exist for religious minorities in Pakistan, or in most Muslim countries. One hopes that the misplaced anger against innocent Muslims dissipates soon and such freedoms are not curtailed significantly. Nevertheless, there is a serious question as to whether this pluralism can persist forever, and if it does not, where the responsibility will lie.

The problem is that immigrant Muslim communities have, by and large, chosen isolation over integration. In the long run this is a fundamentally unhealthy situation because it creates suspicion and friction, and makes living together ever so much harder. It also raises serious ethical questions about drawing upon the resources of a society for which one has hostile feelings.

This is not an argument for doing away with one’s Muslim identity. But, without closer interaction with the mainstream, pluralism will be threatened. Above all, survival of the community depends upon strongly emphasizing the difference between extremists and ordinary Muslims, and on purging from within “jihadist” elements committed to violence. Any member of the Muslim community who thinks that ordinary people in the US are fair game because of bad US government policies has no business being there.

To echo George W Bush, “let there be no mistake”. But the mistake will be to let the heart rule the head in the aftermath of utter horror, to bomb a helpless Afghan people into an even earlier period of the Stone Age, or to take similar thoughtless action. Instead, in deference to a billion years of patient evolution, we need to hand over charge to the cerebellum. Otherwise the survival of our species is far from guaranteed.

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