For some days after the al-Qaeda attacks of “9/11” I was among the Red Cross volunteers assisting some 8,000 passengers and crew from 40 aircraft diverted to Halifax. It was the start of a brief time of heady opportunity, with America’s allies pulling together, and even its enemies acknowledging that the barbaric attacks were a step too far. Reflecting on the United States’ recent surrender to the Taliban, I’ll share something I wrote twenty years ago to a student at Pakistan’s Quaid-e-Azam University where I’d spoken some months earlier. “What do you think of the current Afghanistan imbroglio?” he had emailed. I think much of my lengthy reply has stood the test of time – but with one glaring and deeply disturbing exception near the end. I’ll leave you to judge.
Reports from Afghanistan this week tell of of gunmen storming Kabul University just before the opening of a book fair. It reminds me of similar anti-cultural violence in Pakistan in 2015. Just two days before the Lahore Literary Festival was due to begin, a suicidal fanatic had blown himself up nearby. Officials tried to cancel the event but the organizers refused to be intimidated. Both the army and police vowed to provide protection. Some foreign ambassadors declined to attend, but over the course of three days thousands of Pakistanis and guests from around the world joined in a resounding repudiation of fanaticism and barbarism.
Some stories are so improbable that you just couldn’t make them up. This is one of them.
A decade ago there was much speculation about the newly-built port at Gwadar on the bleak coast of Pakistan’s underdeveloped and restive Balochistan province, better known for independently-minded tribes and a Taliban refuge than for maritime trade and commerce. Yet China had paid to transform this obscure fishing town, strategically located at the approaches to the Gulf of Hormuz through which about a third of the world’s seaborne oil passes. I’d been hearing much theorizing among China’s rivals, but never met anyone who’d actually been there. So I went.
It would be easy to dismiss the daily sunset ceremony at the crossing straddling the storied Grand Trunk Road linking Pakistan’s Lahore and India’s Amritsar, as a caricature of militarism taken to extremes. But I don’t, and here’s why. On the day I visited a few years ago it was indeed reminiscent at first of the famous Monty Python’s “Ministry of Silly Walks” sketch on 1970s television, but an unforeseen event uncovered a very human face behind the mask of blatant hostility.