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‘I was detained as a potential suicide bomber’

23 March 2013

9:00 AM

23 March 2013

9:00 AM

To the Lahore Literary Festival. As I cross the border from India, Pakistan is experiencing an unprecedented wave of sectarian violence: 400 Shias have been killed in bomb attacks this year, while more than 150 houses and two churches belonging to the Christians have been burned in mob attacks. Yet Pakistan always manages to stumble on. Sixty-five years after partition, Lahore still feels like Delhi’s sister city, and is much more like my adopted home than either Madras or Calcutta is. Moreover, there are some hopeful signs. Zardari’s government is about to complete its term in office — the first time in the country’s history that an elected government will manage to do so — and the literary festival itself is a huge success. Every event is packed to the gunnels with excited Lahoris relishing a break from their grim politics. We authors are treated somewhere between Bono doing an airdive and Imran Khan returning home after beating India in a test match. It certainly beats the quiet snores from the back that accompany your average Waterstone’s reading.

It’s not every day that the British Council sends an armoured car to pick you up for a reading. But when I arrived at Karachi airport, I find I have been assigned a guard with a pump-action shotgun to escort me to the quiet university campus where I am to speak. You don’t get that in Cheltenham. Later, in Islamabad, another armoured vehicle awaits — this time the sort of sinister black SUV that Jack Bauer is always crashing in 24. I spend the morning discussing AfPak with the beautiful Hina Rabbani Khar, then in her last fortnight as Pakistan’s foreign minister. She is, as they say, the full package — no wonder she had her Indian counterpart eating out of her hands when she turned up in Delhi with her head covered, wearing movie-star Cavallo sunglasses and swinging her black Birkin bag: the Indian media called her Pakistan’s Weapon of Mass Distraction. Hina talks about Cameron’s Chequers conference and the British attempt to get the Pakistanis and the Afghans to agree to a peaceful negotiated future after the Nato withdrawal in 2014. The sticking point, as ever, is Pakistan’s paranoic fear that India will use Afghanistan as a second front to surround Pakistan, and Hina is explicit that Pakistan would have a serious problem with India arming and training the Afghan army. She doesn’t say so, but this of course is the main reason that the ISI continues its suicidal policy of aiding the Taleban.


Early rise the following morning for the flight in a tiny twin-prop over the snows of Pir Panjal to Kabul. Here, as well as launching my new book, Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan 1838-42, in a sub-zero open-air reading in Rory Stewart’s old fort, I also had a 90-minute audience with Karzai. In Islamabad, everyone from the foreign ministry downwards told me that he was unstable and probably under medication. Even the British diplomats there warned me that he could be ‘emotional’. But my impression is that he is a charismatic, erudite and intelligent man who knows exactly what he is saying. He had read my book within a fortnight of publication and invited me to Kabul to ask me about his forbear Shah Shuja, whom the British returned to the Kabul throne. His view was that the US were doing to him what the British had done to Shah Shuja: ‘The lies Lord Auckland told, that we don’t want to interfere with your country, that’s exactly what they tell us today, the Americans and all the others,’ he said. ‘Our so-called current allies have squandered the opportunity given to them by the Afghan people.’ Karzai made it clear that he thought Shah Shuja didn’t stress his independence enough, and was never going to allow himself to be remembered as anyone’s puppet.

A rather different set of adventures on my final morning in Kabul when I am detained as a potential suicide bomber. This takes place while I was going for a walk along the 7th-century city walls on the mountains high above the city. I am hauled off at gunpoint to District One Police Station, where after a few phone calls the Commander releases me with the stern admonition: ‘Taleban have fired rockets down from that ridge. And enemies wear many clothes. Many suicide bombers have dressed as foreigners.’ It seems the city was on lockdown because of the opening of parliament. Still: from presidential palace to police slammer in 24 hours.

When I was researching Return of a King, I was shown around by the fearless Nancy Hatch Dupree, an 84-year-old American writer who walked me around the site of the British cantonments of 1839 — now, inevitably, the US embassy and Nato barracks. On this trip I was able to repay her kindness by lecturing at her smart new Dupree Centre at Kabul University. Nancy continues to commute between her homes in Kabul and Peshawar, sometimes driving herself down the Khyber Pass in her little Renault 5, sometimes by Red Cross flights: ‘I am their only frequent flyer,’ she tells me. Once I took Nancy out to dinner. In the middle of the starter, bursts of automatic gunfire were heard immediately outside, whereupon all the hardened war correspondents immediately dived under the tables. Only Nancy continued unfazed, announcing from her seat, ‘I think I’ll just finish my chips.’

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