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15x5 at the Tabernacle

June 10, 2013

Over the last few years, I have noticed the increase in the number of discussions and debates held at public forums in London. The tickets aren’t cheap, and yet these events are mostly packed. While I have attended a few, the 15x5 format at Notting Hill Gate’s Tabernacle was new to me.

Here, five speakers are allotted 15 minutes each to talk about an aspect of a broad theme. This converted church houses a theatre and restaurant, and is the venue for discussions, plays and concerts. Last week, the topic was Afghanistan and Pakistan, and attracted a full house. Most of the audience sits at tables where they can place their drinks and snacks, giving the event an informal air.

Pakistan’s well-known novelist, Kamila Shamsie began proceedings with a fascinating talk about an Afghan queen from over two thousand years ago who featured on a series of coins that charted her rise and fall. Illustrated with slides, the lecture informed us of the confluence of Greek, Indian and Central Asian influences that shaped Afghanistan.

Next was Sherrard Cowper-Coles, the ex-diplomat and author of Cables from Kabul: The Inside Story of the West’s Afghanistan Campaign. He served as Britain’s Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2009 and 2010, and in his talk, he contrasted the advice he gave with the decisions ultimately taken in London.

Basically, the UK was–and is—in lockstep with the American policies that have often proved so disastrous to Afghanistan and the region.

In the original programme, there were to be five speakers, in line with the usual format. However, since the event was planned, Declan Walsh, the New York Times bureau chief in Pakistan, was thrown out of the country, and was invited to talk about his experience. I mentioned this in my op-ed column a couple of days ago, and thought Declan’s talk would be of interest to readers.

He spoke warmly of his nine years in Pakistan, of the many friends he had made, and how different the country was from the perceptions many foreigners had formed about it. He deeply regretted his abrupt expulsion, and could offer no reason for it. Given 72 hours to leave, he was placed virtually under arrest in a Lahore hotel before being put on a flight out. Declan talked about his desperate efforts to have the order reversed by talking to his many friends in high places. Even the caretaker information minister had no clue why his visa had been cancelled.

During a break, my friends at our table all asked me why he had been so badly treated, and I am as mystified as anybody else. Declan’s reporting has always been fair and sympathetic; he understands Pakistan and the way it works (or doesn’t work) better than most Pakistanis.

Whoever made the decision to throw Declan out clearly doesn’t understand the clout of the NYT has among American policymakers. To cancel its bureau chief’s visa in such a crass way smacks of ignorance and spite. I do hope the new government’s media and foreign affairs team will repair this damage to Pakistan’s image before the NYT sends a less informed and sympathetic journalist to Islamabad.

The next speaker was Sadakat Kadri, a lawyer based in New York, and author of Heaven on Earth, a study of Shariah law, and its relevance today. Among other things, he informed us that in the five centuries of Ottoman rule, Islamic punishments like stoning to death and chopping off the hands of thieves had hardly ever been carried out.

Nadeem Aslam, one of Pakistan’s most gifted writers, read out his deeply moving account of his early days when he was first published in a children’s magazine. Amazingly, he moved to England at the age of 15, knowing virtually no English.

Over the years, he taught himself to write and has developed into a highly regarded novelist, with several literary prizes to his credit. I am currently reading his Maps for Lost Lovers, and am struck by his piercing insights into the immigrant condition in the UK.

The sixth speaker was William Dalrymple. A brilliant storyteller, he spoke about the first British invasion of Afghanistan in 1839, and its disastrous end. Hardly a handful of survivors returned to Peshawar after the incursion that lasted for three years. As an Afghan tribal leader asked a British officer: “You have entered our country; how do you propose to leave?”

The problem then, as it is today, is that Afghanistan is a desperately poor country that cannot sustain a large invading force. Sooner or later, the government runs out of money and patience. In the case of Elphinstone’s doomed army, local chieftains were paid off to keep the passes open. Once cuts had to be made, these bribes were reduced, causing the roads to India to be sealed.

But what triggered hostilities was the behaviour of some British officers towards Afghan women: Alexander Burns took a mistress who was also the paramour of an Afghan chief. Burns was beheaded and his head displayed at a public place. The British cantonment came under fire, and the 21,000 strong army with its huge train of camp followers was subjected to repeated attacks in the harsh Afghan winter. The cold took many lives as the ill-equipped sepoys struggled along snow-covered roads.

Dalrymple gave a similar talk recently in Karachi at the launch of his excellent book Return of a King. There are eerie parallels with the current situation in Afghanistan that the author underlines in his account. The lack of local knowledge is as common among Nato forces today as it was in 1839. Basically, the lesson history teaches us is that while Afghanistan is relatively easy to invade, invariably occupying forces provoke resistance and meet ultimate defeat.

Sadly, there was no time for questions and answers after each talk. But it was a very stimulating evening nonetheless.