Sometime in the winter of 1969 a Pakistani colleague told me that the Ford Foundation had created visiting professorships at the University of Islamabad and asked if I would like one. At the time I was always open to travel adventure so I said sure. After I was appointed, the question arose as to how to get there. To me the obvious answer was to drive. I put the proposition to William Shawn, the editor of the New Yorker, who thought it an interesting idea. The magazine put up enough money for me to buy a Land Rover Dormobile. This legendary vehicle, which is no longer manufactured, had sleeping bunks and a stove – perfect for the job. I enlisted my friend the Chamonix guide Claude Jaccoux and his wife Michèle and in early September we set out. It took about three weeks to drive from France through Italy, Yugoslavia, Greece, Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan and then over the Khyber Pass into Pakistan.
Adil Ahmad Dar, the 20-year-old Kashmiri suicide terrorist who killed himself along with forty Indian soldiers at Pulwama on 14 February, will be regarded as a hero and martyr by many Kashmiris of his generation, alienated, desperate and angered by the atrocities that have been rained down on them by the Indian military on the orders of successive governments (the Congress record is appalling) for many decades. Blinding young men in Kashmir with pellet guns is an Indian innovation. Had Dar acted alone, a few might even have dared call him a hero in public. Instead an oppressive silence reigns throughout Kashmir.
One night, I went on a boat trip down the Bosporus with about a dozen models, fashionistas, several transvestites, someone who appeared to be wearing a beekeeper’s outfit as a form of daily wear, the editor of Dazed and Confused Jefferson Hack, and Franca Sozzani, the editor of Italian Vogue. We were in the European capital of culture, but it was like a fabulous night at the London club Kinky Gerlinky transferred to Istanbul and financed by the Turkish Ministry of Culture. At one end of the boat, in his wheelchair, was Gore Vidal. At the other end was V.S. Naipaul. It must have been June 2010 because I remember catching Frank Lampard’s ‘ghost goal’ against Germany on a TV in the hotel lobby just before we dashed out.
Yet another manufactured crisis in Pakistan with a hard-line religious group at its core; the country’s political capital, Islamabad, cut off for over a fortnight from its twin military capital, Rawalpindi. The people laying siege are not too far from military GHQ. A whiff of grapeshot and they would have dispersed like rabbits. But the demonstrators were confident. The leaders were actually hoping for a few martyrs. The government did not oblige. Yesterday it capitulated in toto to the demands of the TLY, the Tehreek-i-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah (Movement to Obey the Prophet), a group set up two years ago in Karachi.
In the mid-20th century, poliovirus paralysed half a million children a year, in rich countries as well as poor. In 1952 there were 57,628 cases in the United States. Following the development of vaccines by Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin, polio declined markedly in North America and Europe. The US had its last case in 1979, the UK in 1982. There were still, however, about 350,000 cases a year in the mid-1980s, predominantly in countries where the state did not have the money or capacity to implement mass vaccination programmes. The Global Polio Eradication Initiative was formed in 1988 by the WHO and national governments to finance and organise immunisation campaigns. It precipitated a sharp reduction in polio: there were 37 cases in the world in 2016, a fall of 99.9 per cent. But the disease stubbornly persists in Nigeria, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
A trip through the dark corridors and political galleries suggests that what we are witnessing in Pakistan today – street demos in Lahore and Islamabad, attempts to seize the prime minister’s house, a token occupation of the state television building – is little more than a crude struggle for power between the incumbents (the two stooges otherwise known as the Sharif brothers) and a segment of the opposition led by Imran Khan and the forces unleashed by the Canadian-based ‘moderate’ Islamist cleric Tahirul Qadri, who controls a large network of madrassahs that were supported by the Sharifs and many others. Mohammad Sarwar, for instance, the governor of Punjab (a millionaire chum of Blair and Brown and former New Labour MP from Glasgow), joined Qadri’s procession, presumably to demonstrate his faith.
For most of the world’s media, Pakistan’s general election was about terrorism. Candidates were identified according to their attitude towards the Taliban, and labelled as ‘secular’ or ‘conservative’. Little was said about party platforms. Circumstances appeared to justify the focus. There was a savage campaign of intimidation by domestic extremists in the run-up to the vote. More than a hundred people died, most of them members of the outgoing ruling coalition parties. The Awami National Party (ANP) and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) said they were targeted because of their uncompromising attitude towards the Taliban and avowedly secular views. There is some truth to this; but their enthusiastic embrace of the ‘global war on terror’ was a more immediate cause.
Two years ago, on 17 March 2011, at approximately 10:45 a.m., a US drone fired at least two missiles at a jirga (meeting of elders) in Datta Khel, North Waziristan. The Daily Telegraph reported later that day, quoting anonymous ‘intelligence sources’, that ‘more than 38 suspected militants were killed’. There has never been an independent and impartial investigation or even official acknowledgment of the strike. In Pakistan last October I spoke to some of the victims’ relatives. ‘The drones had been flying low all day,’ I was told by Sayed (not his real name), whose cousin, an 18-year-old student, was killed in the strike.
Eliminating an infectious disease by deliberately eradicating the causative agent has happened only twice: smallpox fell in 1977 and rinderpest – cattle plague – in 2011. Polio should be next, but the murders in the last week of vaccinators in Pakistan – one in Charsadda, two in Peshawar, five in Karachi – have stopped the eradication programme. Nothing new for the Taliban, who blocked polio immunisation in Waziristan earlier this year. Things haven’t been helped by the disclosure that Dr Shakil Afridi, whose activities helped to locate Osama bin Laden in Abottabad, operated under the cover of a bogus immunisation programme run by the CIA.
The Nato assault on a Pakistani checkpoint close to the Afghan border which killed 24 soldiers on Saturday must have been deliberate. Nato commanders have long been supplied with maps marking these checkpoints by the Pakistani military. They knew that the target was a military outpost. The explanation that they were fired on first rings false and has been ferociously denied by Islamabad. Previous such attacks were pronounced ‘accidental’ and apologies were given and accepted. This time it seems more serious. It has come too soon after other ‘breaches of sovereignty’, in the words of the local press, but Pakistani sovereignty is a fiction. The military high command and the country’s political leaders willingly surrendered their sovereignty many decades ago. That it is now being violated openly and brutally is the real cause for concern.
A US Special Forces operation in Pakistan has taken out Osama bin Laden and a few others. He was in a safe house close to Kakul Military Academy (Pakistan’s Sandhurst). The only interesting question is who betrayed his whereabouts and why. The leak could only have come from the ISI and, if this is the case, which I’m convinced it is, then General Kayani, the military boss of the country, must have green-lighted the decision. What pressure was put on him will come out sooner or later. The event took me back to a conversation I had a few years ago.
The Wikileaks confirm what we already know about Af-Pak. Pakistan is a US satrapy: its military and political leaders constitute a venal elite happy to kill and maim its people at the behest of a foreign power. The US proconsul in Islamabad, Anne Patterson, emerges as a shrewd diplomat, repeatedly warning her country of the consequences in Pakistan if they carry on as before. Amusing but hardly a surprise is Zardari reassuring the US that if he were assassinated his sister, Faryal Talpur, would replace him and all would continue as before. Always nice to know that the country is regarded by its ruler as a personal fiefdom.
The mood in Pakistan is bitter, angry and vengeful. Effigies of Salman Butt have been burned, his name has been painted on donkeys and the no-ball bowlers are being violently abused all over the country. Demands that the corrupt cricketers be hanged in public are gaining ground. Among younger members of the elite there is shock that Butt (educated at a posh school) has let the side down. Mohammad Amir they could understand since he’s from a poor family. The blindness of this cocooned layer of young Pakistanis is hardly a surprise, but popular anger should not be underestimated. The no-ballers and their captain will need round-the-clock security when they return. Much better to take a long holiday abroad (surely they can afford it) and let tempers cool. There is enough evidence already for them to be suspended, if not by the neck.
As the floodwaters surged through Pakistan, killing hundreds of people and displacing millions, the president was on his way to Europe. Properties had to be inspected; his son had to be crowned as the future leader of Pakistan at a rally in Birmingham. And to reinforce Zardari's pose as the permanent widower of the ‘goddess of democracy’, the kids had to be introduced to both Sarko and Cameron. Mercifully the coronation in Birmingham was postponed. It was too crass even for the loyalists. Instead Zardari delivered an appalling speech and a Kashmiri elder, angered by the nonsense being spouted, rose to his feet and hurled one of his shoes at the businessman-president. Zardari left the hall in anger. ‘Zardari joins the Shoe Club with Bush’ was the headline in the News. The report continued:
Never a quiet moment in the dear Fatherland. I'm not referring to the bombing of the US Consulate in Peshawar, which is hardly a surprise given the intensity of US drone attacks in recent weeks. On other fronts there are some interesting developments. Parliament has taken away all the president's powers, repealing the amendments introduced by previous military dictators. As if on cue the Supreme Court summoned the attorney general and asked him to provide the court with all the papers relating to the Swiss case against Zardari and his late wife regarding money-laundering and corruption. The Law Ministry refused to part with the documents. The attorney general informed the court and resigned in protest. Some spin doctor or other must have advised the president that a counter move was necessary to restore his image. Zardari announced that after his death all his organs, indeed 'his whole body' would be donated to the nation. When the news was reported on Pak Point, readers had a field day. A few of these comments convey the tone of the rest. Let nobody doubt Zardari's popularity:
Following the Diary I wrote in the last issue of the LRB I received a number of angry emails. One reader was annoyed that I was sceptical regarding the rumours of Zardari’s involvement in his wife’s assassination. I was sent a link to a video showing one of Benazir's main bodyguards, Khalid Shahenshah, behaving most oddly in the minutes before her death.
The Obama administration has applauded the Pakistan army’s offensive to oust the Taliban from Pakistan’s Swat Valley. It’s gingerly being heralded as a change in army thinking that no longer sees the 'mortal threat' as nuclear India to the east but a spreading Taliban insurgency to the north and west, which – if a BBC map is true – now controls most of the tribal areas on the Afghan border. The scale of the operation is immense. Up to 1.5 million people could be displaced by the fighting, if the current civilian exodus from Swat is added to earlier ones from the tribal areas. Pakistan’s federal and provincial civilian governments have given unreserved political authority to an operation devised wholly by the army. Opposition parties, the media, religious leaders and 70 per cent of the people (according to polls) all support it, aware, finally, that the savagery of the Taliban’s rule in Swat posed a graver threat to Pakistani democracy than to American imperialism or Indian hegemony.