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Book review: Darkness visible

Books Nicholas Schmidle's intrepid reporting from Pakistan puts other western journalists to shame - which makes his recourse to stale conventional wisdom all the more disappointing, Taimur Khan writes.
"65 per cent of Pakistan's population is under 30, and only a third of those young people think democracy is a good idea. What kind of modernity do they want?"
"65 per cent of Pakistan's population is under 30, and only a third of those young people think democracy is a good idea. What kind of modernity do they want?"

Nicholas Schmidle's intrepid reporting from Pakistan puts other western journalists to shame - which makes his recourse to stale conventional wisdom all the more disappointing, Taimur Khan writes. To Live or to Perish Forever: Two Tumultuous Years in Pakistan Nicholas Schmidle Henry Holt & Company Dh112 In his 1964 travelogue An Area of Darkness, VS Naipaul, visiting India for the first time, wrote: "Perhaps all lands of myth were like this: dazzling, familiar to drabness ... until the moment of departure." Growing up in Trinidad, Naipaul's well-worn picture of India was informed entirely by the glorious Hindu past imagined by his grandparents' stories and colonial-era British history books. As a result, he was unprepared for what enveloped him from the moment he stepped off his steamliner in Bombay: overwhelming poverty, a debilitating caste system, willful blindness to omnipresent filth, a deformed half-modernity. Naipaul's every idea of India was irrevocably contradicted by his own experiences and observations, and he spent a year living throughout the country, observing and recording the day-to-day banalities of local life, distilling from them a multifaceted vision of postcolonial India that confounded all others.

Pakistan, India's sibling, has rarely been lucky enough to have assiduous foreign observers whose writings complicate rather than confirm popular myths and narratives. This has, unfortunately, remained the case even as the country has become an object of intense scrutiny in the West, first in the aftermath of September 11, and now again thanks to the Obama administration's "AfPak" strategy. In the last eight years, scores of books, scholarly studies and newspaper pieces have successfully branded Pakistan "the most dangerous place on Earth". In the eyes of this literature, the country's most salient and essential feature is the fact that it is perpetually about to fall to the Taliban hordes.

The fact remains, however, that Pakistan has remained. Thus however dysfunctional the state may be, there is an undeniable gap between Pakistan discourse and the actual, enduring place. Pakistan, the nuclear-armed, militant-ridden state so important to world security, remains an area of darkness.

Between February 2006 and January 2008, the 27-year-old journalist Nicholas Schmidle traversed Pakistan's provinces in an attempt to understand the country's chaotic politics from the ground level. In the introduction to the book that his journey produced, To Live or to Perish Forever, he writes that he "desperately wanted to understand not just theories about Pakistan and how it operated, but Pakistanis and how they lived. I craved the tactile experience of Pakistan, anticipating the burning summer heat, the greasy, spicy food, the horrendous, maddening traffic - and the unexpected conversations with unlikely partners." Like Naipaul, then, Schmidle resolved to let the tactile and the directly observed provide insights about Pakistan's complexities that top-down theory could not. Given the hubris of most western reporters writing about Pakistan, Schmidle's introduction is most promising. And his approach is admirable: he learnt Urdu, donned a shalwar kamiz, and bravely spent two of the most vertiginous years in recent Pakistani history visiting areas that best represented the ethnic, geographic, ideological and religious fault lines along which the country then appeared to be cleaving. Each chapter of To Live or to Perish Forever, is devoted to Schmidle's firsthand experience of a wound in the Pakistani body politic: from Balochi separatism, to Karachi sectarianism, to the Red Mosque jihadis in Islamabad, to Taliban groups in the north-west.

Unlike most of his peers, Schmidle does not rely on anonymous government sources or retired army generals. And he avoids the temptation to write puff about the "brave" cultural happenings of the minuscule elite (Karachi fashion week! Islamabad teenage rockers!) that are most interesting to western, middle class readers as exotic reflections of themselves. Instead, his dogged reportage provides insight into the lives of some of Pakistan's most controversial, fascinating and difficult-to-access personalities.

Perhaps most notably, he befriended Abdul Rashid Ghazi, the leader of the Red Mosque, just months before the government siege, and eventual assault, the ended the jihadi leader's life. Schmidle's portrait of Ghazi is detailed, sympathetic and arresting; the kind of reporting virtually no western or Pakistani journalist has undertaken. In another highlight, he takes us to the middle of ethnic riots in Karachi's unofficially self-governed Lyari slum, riding on the back of a stranger's motorbike as boys pelt him with rocks in the wake of the attempt by the deposed chief justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry to visit the city in 2007, which set off days of fighting between pro- and anti-Musharraf parties.

Unfortunately, Schmidle frames his often excellent reporting as a response to a common question, posed to him by his grandfather after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in 2007: "What's the problem with that place?" As Schmidle elaborates: Why do Pakistanis, "on a daily basis, still face an existential dilemma: to live or perish forever?" But is this actually the daily question faced by most Pakistanis? Schmidle never asks - though he casts his net admirably far outside Pakistan's halls of government, he still talks mostly to militant leaders, not ordinary people. Bafflingly, the decades-old received wisdom about Pakistan - the always almost-failed state - is accepted from the start as a truth that Schmidle's reportage, no matter how brave or detailed, can only confirm.

In chapter after chapter, Schmidle's hand-held close-ups are contextualised by an accessible capsule history of the particular situation. These short narratives (some chapters are no more than 10 pages long) are not so much inaccurate as they are incomplete: grounded in a simplistic Pakistan discourse that has been produced by the study of only those actors that matter most to the US, whether the "existential" threat of Taliban and jihadi militants, or those state institutions that best serve short-term American ambitions, whether incompetent and self-interested "pro-democracy" politicians or the anti-democratic military. As such, these background accounts often cut against the book's premise that observation should shape theory, not vice versa.

In the chapter on the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in Rawalpindi, for example, Schmidle grippingly describes watching the announcement of Benazir Bhutto's death during a campaign speech by the leader of the secular Pashtun nationalist Awami National Party, Asfandyar Wali Khan, near Peshawar: "As I sat listening to Khan, a flood of text messages arrived on my mobile phone... A man sitting in the front row interrupted Khan mid-sentence. 'Asfandyar Sahib, Benazir Bhutto is dead from a suicide bomber.' Khan relayed the news over the PA system. He then bowed his head in respect and exited the stage. The all-male crowd of Pashtuns dispersed. They looked confused, scared and lost, and buzzed with conspiracy theories already."

Schmidle goes on to artfully describe driving back to Peshawar as popular anger explodes into violence, and cars and shops are set on fire. But later in the chapter, when it comes time to stop painting the scene and start analysing events, he relies not on his own hard-won understanding of Pakistan, not on local experts - but on Peter Bergen, a terrorism analyst at the New America Foundation, the Washington, DC think tank that Schmidle joined after returning from Pakistan. Demonstrating a deep unwillingness to move beyond an American frame of reference, Bergen describes Bhutto's killing as "the Kennedy assassination and 9/11, rolled into one". Schmidle then concludes with an unsubstantiated stock explanation of the very sort he set out to avoid. "Her presence meant more than her deeds. And without an educated, liberal woman vying for power, one less obstacle now stood in the way of Pakistan becoming the bigoted basket case its naysayers often described it as."

But how does Schmidle know Bhutto's mere presence mattered so much to Pakistanis? As he notes, Bhutto's socialist political rhetoric rarely found form in policies that benefited Pakistan's poor masses. How exactly did this "educated, liberal" woman - who helped the Taliban rise to power in Afghanistan in the 1990s, did next to nothing for Pakistani women's rights, and amassed a $1.5 billion fortune through graft - keep the country from becoming a basket case? Bhutto's rule brought great benefits to her own dynastic party - and her return supplied the US with a pliable ally as Pervez Musharraf slipped from power. But did the average Pakistani benefit at all? Had Schmidle asked these questions, he might have put more stock in the words of the Pakistani street vendor he interviews earlier in the chapter: "Why are you asking me about elections when I have no food?" the vendor asks. "If anyone brings me a sack of flour, I will vote for them."

Schmidle's discussion of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), and of Pakistani Pashtuns in general, is similarly representative of his reportorial success and analytic failures. At first he does an admirable job of filling in the complex factors - including Pashtun nationalism, chronic unemployment, anger at US bombings, and the breakdown of the tribal system - that led to the ascendancy of Taliban groups in the Pashtun tribal areas. He discusses FATA's 30-year history as a training ground and ideological incubator for fighters who served the strategic interests of Islamabad, Washington and Riyadh. He also touches on how the maintenance of colonial-era laws that deny FATA residents full access to state institutions, most crucially the justice system, paved the way for people's willingness to accept rule by puritanical militants.

It is all the more surprising, then, how much Schmidle relies, almost by reflex, on clichés about the untamable Pashtuns, whose resistance to outside forces is predicated as much on their inborn notions of honour as on any political realities. "If you knew anything about Pashtuns," he writes, "it was that their civilisation had thrived on taking revenge." As support for this claim, he identifies the failures of Alexander the Great, the British Empire, and the Soviet Union to conquer the ruthless Pashtun.

Of course, all parties in Pakistan engage in often violent street politics. But it's largely about the pragmatic control of turf and territories - and none of it is reducible to a simple cultural programming for revenge. By explaining present-day conflicts as just the latest moment in a long, more or less linear history of Pashtuns resisting authority and asserting their strength, Schmidle dangerously reduces the Taliban into an essentially tribal group, defined more by their genes than by circumstance, with a uniform ideology and set of strategic goals. In reality, the Taliban are a variety of groups with similar features but different, sometimes competing, goals. Even the New York Times is now aware of this distinction on most days; Schmidle's book should be much sharper on the subject, given the length and breadth of his observations.

It is perhaps unrealistic to expect US journaliststo look at Pakistan without searching for instrumental knowledge - data that will contribute to more effective military tactics, strategy and policy. Schmidle spends his energy getting close to political and militant leaders, documenting the world as they see it. This is valuable work, but it will not explain "the problem with this place". Most of Pakistan's 160 million citizens are not militants. The country is growing twice as fast as the world average each year, urbanising at a dizzying pace, and 65 per cent of its population is under 30. Only a third of those young people think democracy is a good idea.

We need to ask more fundamental questions about where Pakistan is going. How is the country modernising? What kind of modernities do its citizens want? Virtually no work of this sort has been done, and it is unfortunate that Schmidle contributed less to the project (one, it bears noting, that would bear rich instrumental fruit) than he might have after two years on the ground. "I felt sad for Pakistan, and the people there who couldn't just leave," he writes toward the end. Perhaps a well-reported analysis of Pakistan grounded in Pakistani concerns, not foreign ones, would not arrive at such an impotent conclusion.

Taimur Khan is an editor on The National's foreign desk.

Published: January 7, 2010 04:00 AM

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