Monday, November 19, 2007

A Drama in Pakistan

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about my trip to India in 1979. I was driving in a camper van across Saudi Arabia with a girlfriend pretending to be my sister, risking flogging or decapitation in an effort to get to India. Yesterday I read the story of a Saudi woman sentenced to 200 lashes and six months in jail for being in a vehicle driven by an unrelated man.

Our story continued in the relative haven of Dubai. We had to get to Pakistan on the other side of the Gulf, so we bribed a Chinese sea captain to winch the van with a rickety crane onto the deck of his ancient wooden dhow. With heavy heart Jilly and I watched all our worldly goods disappear over the horizon. We flew to Karachi, half expecting never to see the van again.

Karachi harbour was bedlam. As far as the eye could see, there was a sea of little boats jostling to reach the shore, and no sign of ours. After six tense days, just as we'd given up hope, we finally saw it -- the van's blue and white roof at the end of the queue at least a mile away. We ran to a man in uniform to ask how soon we would be able to unload it.

"Around seven weeks", he said.

We nearly died. It contained all our possessions, and we had no means of support in a country thousands of miles from home. The officer shrugged his shoulders. In desperation I wrote the number of our youth hostel on the back of my BBC identity card. He glanced at it, and then did a double take.

"BBC? You know Mark Tully?"

"Well, not personally, but..."

Now if you've ever wondered how Moses managed to part the Red Sea, there, in Karachi harbour, I witnessed it with my own eyes. Hundreds of dhows were unceremoniously pushed aside as a large armed patrol boat carved a passage through and led our very scared Chinese captain to shore.

As we were reunited with the van and resumed our journey, it occured to me what an extraordinary legacy we'd left in Pakistan. Even though the British had been gone for 35 years, we still had the influence to overturn the rule book. But we also left behind an unbalanced structure which enables the military to ride roughshod over democratic principles to this day.

Cut to 2006. I very nearly sold a series to a big American network. They loved the idea, but somehow it was too near the knuckle. It was called "If You Were President", and the idea was simple. You took a disaster scenario, a potential doomsday situation, and you asked viewers what they would do if they were President of the United States.

In order to find topics for the series, I enlisted the help of a man who assesses worldwide risks for major corporations. I wanted a list of the ten biggest threats facing the West. and guess what was number one, way ahead of Californian earthquakes, Global Warming and the collapse of the sub-prime lending market?

"In Pakistan President Musharraf is replaced by a weak civilian government unable to contain the Taliban. That regime is quickly overthrown by religious extremists who immediately turn round the nuclear missiles currently pointing at Delhi and Mumbai and aim them straight at Tel Aviv."

How would the President of the United States react? Sadly the series was never made.

So, as the crisis in Pakistan continues to deepen I'm aware we're not just watching the saga of yet another dictator resisting democracy in a remote land. I don't know if Britain still has influence in Pakistan. But if we do, I hope for once our politicians, hitherto not too adept at dealing with Asian dictatorships, use, that power wisely. This is one bit of foreign policy we can't afford to get wrong.