.
S

outh Asia has always been a place of great interest to me. Like much of my interest in foreign affairs and international relations, this is due to Dr. Elizabeth Hanson at the University of Connecticut. I was fortunate enough to take her South Asia in World Politics course in my junior year of college and convert it for honors credit. Early on in the class, she suggested we attend an exhibition at the university museum of South Asian art and music. Seeing this as an opportunity to make it a date, I asked a classmate if she would like to join me (nerdy, I know). While the date came and went well enough, my interest in South Asia lasted much longer. Later, I was tasked with tracking South Asia for a client whilst I lived and worked in London, providing periodic updates on politics and security. I also found myself helping a colleague’s wife finish up some research on her Ph.D. dissertation (later turned into a book) on the debate over India’s nuclearization.

Always interested about the region, I recently picked up The Nine Lives of Pakistan: Dispatches from a Precarious State by Mr. Declan Walsh. Now the New York Times’ Chief Africa Correspondent, but previously the paper’s Pakistan Bureau Chief, Mr. Walsh profiles figures from across Pakistan as a way to illustrate the country’s complexities and contradictions.

It is a novel format, but one that allows the reader to see history in action and the way these individuals fit into Pakistan’s dynamic nationhood. He sets each in the context of Pakistan’s history and development, contextualizing his subjects and using them as a medium through which he explains how Pakistan came to be the way it is, contrasts, conflicts, and all.

Mr. Walsh allows the subjects of his profiles to speak for themselves, interjecting only when necessary, and only when it advances the story. True, the narrative thread of his expulsion from Pakistan, with which the book opens, runs through the book but does so in a fluid manner.

There is a richness that Mr. Walsh presents that is at odds with the popular conception most Americans, and likely most Westerners, have of Pakistan (if they even think about Pakistan at all). For many on the outside of the policy community, Pakistan almost certainly exited the popular consciousness after Osama bin Laden was killed in Abbottabad, just a short distance from Pakistan’s West Point. Their understanding of Pakistan is one dimensional at best—Islamism, nukes, terrorism, and nothing more.

Mr. Walsh goes beyond that simplistic understanding and presents a far more nuanced picture, one that even he struggles to understand. It is worth quoting him at length:

To me, Pakistan resembled one of those old Japanese puzzle boxes, comprised of secret compartments and hidden traps, which can only be opened in a unique, step-by-step sequence. One afternoon, as I sat in my garden with a friend, considering the latest convulsion, he suddenly threw up his hands in exasperation. ‘That’s the difference between us,’ he said. ‘You are always looking for answers. I have trouble with the questions.’

In that one exchange and that one framing, Mr. Walsh masterfully captures what is so fascinating about South Asia in general—but Pakistan in particular.

Pakistan is a country of contrasts, one where alcohol is ostensibly banned, yet the international hotels offer special tea (alcohol by another name)—including one in which Mr. Walsh sits down for a lengthy conversation with one of the largest brewers in Pakistan. Much is made and grossly oversimplified of the Pashtunwali code of conduct, yet Mr. Walsh’s translator and guide spirit him out of a dangerous situation in which the interviewees debated kidnapping the reporter. It is a country that its founder Muhammed Ali Jinnah wasn’t even sure he wanted and whose original vision has since been warped to a hyper-Islamized—at least at a political level—nation. It has a cosmopolitan elite, yet some of whom brayed loudly for the death (and praised his killer) of one individual profiled for defending a Christian woman accused of blasphemy.

The Nine Lives of Pakistan: Dispatches from a Precarious State | By Declan Walsh | Norton | November 2020.

Each of the individuals profiled by Mr. Walsh could easily fill their own books and one wishes they did. From the grizzled Karachi police detective Chaudhry Aslam who brought new meaning to extrajudicial activity to Sultan Amir Tarar, aka Colonel Imam, of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency and his “Is he? Isn’t he” still in the game with the Taliban and Afghanistan. Both were killed during Mr. Walsh’s reporting, perhaps unironically by the forces unleashed by Colonel Imam and the Afghanistan jihad. With Aslam, one suspects there is a rich if unmined Karachi-noir crime genre begging to be explored.

From these men to Asma Jahangir (the only woman profiled by Mr. Walsh) the “doyenne of Pakistan’s human rights movement” who dared riot police to shoot her during anti-Pervez Musharraf protests and who stood up for those for whom no one else would defend. Her father was tortured in prison under Zulfikar Ali Bhutto whose daughter, Benazir Bhutto, Jahangir hosted on her return to the country. The individuals profiled by Mr. Walsh have an element of “six degrees of separation” about them, but then again, this is probably the case with much of the upper crust and civil societies around the world.

His exploration of the insurgency and the secessionist movement in Baluchistan, which is believed to be the impetus for his expulsion (with which the book opens), is fascinating. Few Americans are likely aware that such a movement is underway in Pakistan, and Mr. Walsh’s exploration of it and its history is done with a deft touch.

For such a strong book, and such a strong reporter, it is a bit disappointing that the book closes on a somewhat clichéd note. If only India and Pakistan realized that they have so much in common, if only they realized that they both enjoy Bollywood films, if only they saw past their differences then South Asia would be at peace. Such sentiment comes across as too simplistic when compared with the rest of the book that is vibrant, nuanced, and paints a vastly more complex and richer picture of Pakistan than most Americans would appreciate.

One also would like more flavor from the ground, if that’s the appropriate phrase. By focusing on these high-profile, or certainly, higher-than-normal profile, individuals (the nomenklatura, if you will) Mr. Walsh only gets one level of the story. True, he does a good job characterizing the environments and surroundings of the individuals in question, but it only skims the surface. He repeatedly talks about how the upper crust of Pakistan is insulated by their wealth from the day-to-day travails of others, living in a bubble, but he never dives into that. He talks of his journeys on the ground in the context of his travels with those he profiles, but you don’t get a sense of Pakistan on the street—how the average Pakistani encountered these events and developments.

The Nine Lives of Pakistan was a delight to read, especially when accompanied by a cup of tea on a Sunday afternoon. Mr. Walsh is an exceptional writer, fluid and evocative, transporting the reader, as the New York Times remarked, to Pakistan. Its connection of selected contemporary figures with the historical trends and developments that brought them to their place and time in Pakistan’s nationhood is an excellent way to highlight this fascinating country’s contradictions.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

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The Nine Lives of Pakistan

Islamabad, Pakistan. Photo by Sajid Khan via Unsplash.

December 11, 2020

The Nine Lives of Pakistan: Dispatches from a Precarious State | By Declan Walsh | Norton | November 2020.

S

outh Asia has always been a place of great interest to me. Like much of my interest in foreign affairs and international relations, this is due to Dr. Elizabeth Hanson at the University of Connecticut. I was fortunate enough to take her South Asia in World Politics course in my junior year of college and convert it for honors credit. Early on in the class, she suggested we attend an exhibition at the university museum of South Asian art and music. Seeing this as an opportunity to make it a date, I asked a classmate if she would like to join me (nerdy, I know). While the date came and went well enough, my interest in South Asia lasted much longer. Later, I was tasked with tracking South Asia for a client whilst I lived and worked in London, providing periodic updates on politics and security. I also found myself helping a colleague’s wife finish up some research on her Ph.D. dissertation (later turned into a book) on the debate over India’s nuclearization.

Always interested about the region, I recently picked up The Nine Lives of Pakistan: Dispatches from a Precarious State by Mr. Declan Walsh. Now the New York Times’ Chief Africa Correspondent, but previously the paper’s Pakistan Bureau Chief, Mr. Walsh profiles figures from across Pakistan as a way to illustrate the country’s complexities and contradictions.

It is a novel format, but one that allows the reader to see history in action and the way these individuals fit into Pakistan’s dynamic nationhood. He sets each in the context of Pakistan’s history and development, contextualizing his subjects and using them as a medium through which he explains how Pakistan came to be the way it is, contrasts, conflicts, and all.

Mr. Walsh allows the subjects of his profiles to speak for themselves, interjecting only when necessary, and only when it advances the story. True, the narrative thread of his expulsion from Pakistan, with which the book opens, runs through the book but does so in a fluid manner.

There is a richness that Mr. Walsh presents that is at odds with the popular conception most Americans, and likely most Westerners, have of Pakistan (if they even think about Pakistan at all). For many on the outside of the policy community, Pakistan almost certainly exited the popular consciousness after Osama bin Laden was killed in Abbottabad, just a short distance from Pakistan’s West Point. Their understanding of Pakistan is one dimensional at best—Islamism, nukes, terrorism, and nothing more.

Mr. Walsh goes beyond that simplistic understanding and presents a far more nuanced picture, one that even he struggles to understand. It is worth quoting him at length:

To me, Pakistan resembled one of those old Japanese puzzle boxes, comprised of secret compartments and hidden traps, which can only be opened in a unique, step-by-step sequence. One afternoon, as I sat in my garden with a friend, considering the latest convulsion, he suddenly threw up his hands in exasperation. ‘That’s the difference between us,’ he said. ‘You are always looking for answers. I have trouble with the questions.’

In that one exchange and that one framing, Mr. Walsh masterfully captures what is so fascinating about South Asia in general—but Pakistan in particular.

Pakistan is a country of contrasts, one where alcohol is ostensibly banned, yet the international hotels offer special tea (alcohol by another name)—including one in which Mr. Walsh sits down for a lengthy conversation with one of the largest brewers in Pakistan. Much is made and grossly oversimplified of the Pashtunwali code of conduct, yet Mr. Walsh’s translator and guide spirit him out of a dangerous situation in which the interviewees debated kidnapping the reporter. It is a country that its founder Muhammed Ali Jinnah wasn’t even sure he wanted and whose original vision has since been warped to a hyper-Islamized—at least at a political level—nation. It has a cosmopolitan elite, yet some of whom brayed loudly for the death (and praised his killer) of one individual profiled for defending a Christian woman accused of blasphemy.

The Nine Lives of Pakistan: Dispatches from a Precarious State | By Declan Walsh | Norton | November 2020.

Each of the individuals profiled by Mr. Walsh could easily fill their own books and one wishes they did. From the grizzled Karachi police detective Chaudhry Aslam who brought new meaning to extrajudicial activity to Sultan Amir Tarar, aka Colonel Imam, of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency and his “Is he? Isn’t he” still in the game with the Taliban and Afghanistan. Both were killed during Mr. Walsh’s reporting, perhaps unironically by the forces unleashed by Colonel Imam and the Afghanistan jihad. With Aslam, one suspects there is a rich if unmined Karachi-noir crime genre begging to be explored.

From these men to Asma Jahangir (the only woman profiled by Mr. Walsh) the “doyenne of Pakistan’s human rights movement” who dared riot police to shoot her during anti-Pervez Musharraf protests and who stood up for those for whom no one else would defend. Her father was tortured in prison under Zulfikar Ali Bhutto whose daughter, Benazir Bhutto, Jahangir hosted on her return to the country. The individuals profiled by Mr. Walsh have an element of “six degrees of separation” about them, but then again, this is probably the case with much of the upper crust and civil societies around the world.

His exploration of the insurgency and the secessionist movement in Baluchistan, which is believed to be the impetus for his expulsion (with which the book opens), is fascinating. Few Americans are likely aware that such a movement is underway in Pakistan, and Mr. Walsh’s exploration of it and its history is done with a deft touch.

For such a strong book, and such a strong reporter, it is a bit disappointing that the book closes on a somewhat clichéd note. If only India and Pakistan realized that they have so much in common, if only they realized that they both enjoy Bollywood films, if only they saw past their differences then South Asia would be at peace. Such sentiment comes across as too simplistic when compared with the rest of the book that is vibrant, nuanced, and paints a vastly more complex and richer picture of Pakistan than most Americans would appreciate.

One also would like more flavor from the ground, if that’s the appropriate phrase. By focusing on these high-profile, or certainly, higher-than-normal profile, individuals (the nomenklatura, if you will) Mr. Walsh only gets one level of the story. True, he does a good job characterizing the environments and surroundings of the individuals in question, but it only skims the surface. He repeatedly talks about how the upper crust of Pakistan is insulated by their wealth from the day-to-day travails of others, living in a bubble, but he never dives into that. He talks of his journeys on the ground in the context of his travels with those he profiles, but you don’t get a sense of Pakistan on the street—how the average Pakistani encountered these events and developments.

The Nine Lives of Pakistan was a delight to read, especially when accompanied by a cup of tea on a Sunday afternoon. Mr. Walsh is an exceptional writer, fluid and evocative, transporting the reader, as the New York Times remarked, to Pakistan. Its connection of selected contemporary figures with the historical trends and developments that brought them to their place and time in Pakistan’s nationhood is an excellent way to highlight this fascinating country’s contradictions.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.