Interviews | Politics | South Asia

Declan Walsh on the ‘Nine Lives of Pakistan’

Declan Walsh talks about his latest book, Pakistan, regional politics, media freedom, and more. 

By Shah Meer Baloch for
Declan Walsh on the ‘Nine Lives of Pakistan’
Credit: Bloomsburg UK

In 2013, Pakistan was gearing up to witness its first civilian transfer of power, having been ruled over for more than half the years since independence by the military.

Three days before the general elections of that year, journalist Declan Walsh, former correspondent for The Guardian and the New York Times’ bureau chief in Pakistan, returned to his home in Islamabad, Pakistan’s posh capital. To his surprise, security officials were at his door. They handed over his expulsion letter and asked him to leave the country within 72 hours. Walsh couldn’t challenge the order and the reasons for his expulsion remained unknown at that moment.

Over seven years later, Walsh’s second book “The Nine Lives of Pakistan: Dispatches from a Divided Nation,” was published by Bloomsbury UK on September 3.  The book is based on Walsh’s time working in Pakistan – more than a decade in total. Walsh uses nine lives from Pakistan to tell the story of one of the world’s most perplexing (and misunderstood) countries. Along the way, he deconstructs the country’s power dynamics, ethnic and religious conflicts, and identity crisis – all of which he argues pose a bigger threat for Pakistan than the much touted dangers from the Taliban. Walsh also talks about his expulsion and experiences reporting out of Pakistan in the book.

The Diplomat’s Shah Meer Baloch interviewed Declan Walsh about his latest book, Pakistan, regional politics, media freedom, and more. Below are excerpts.

Shah Meer Baloch: How representative are these “nine lives” for a diverse and complicated country such as Pakistan?

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Declan Walsh: No group of nine, or even ninety-nine, lives could do justice to a country as diverse, tumultuous or intricately fascinating as Pakistan. And the goal is not to represent, but to understand. I chose to write about this group of people because their stories helped me to understand the country, not only through the dramatic events they became swept up in, and in many cases were consumed by — kidnappings, uprisings, assassinations — but also because their experiences were a window on the eternal themes that have dogged Pakistan since its birth in 1947: identity, faith, and a sense of unresolved history. I’m wary of writers who speak about countries in general terms — “Pakistanis think this” or “Egyptians like that” — and, in that sense, there are many potential nine lives. But these were the ones that opened a window on the country for me and, hopefully, for my readers.

From Salman Taseer to Anwar Kamal Khan, as you showed, most Pakistani politicians have contradictory public and private identities. What are the consequences of these contradictions on Pakistani politics and society?

At first glance, Pakistan seems to be filled with stark contradictions. An observant Muslim may say his or her prayers then guzzle whiskey after dinner; even socially liberally people might hide important details about their lives from their own families. Westerners often take these contradictions for hypocrisies. But after a while, I started to see them through the lens of public and private spheres that allow a kind of tolerance. In Pakistan, and perhaps South Asia more generally, many people enjoy greater freedoms and more permissive lives than outward appearances suggest. Their neighbors or parents or village mullah may well be aware of this – the important thing is not to rub it in everyone’s face. This isn’t always a force for good, and it can certainly retard social progress, but it’s not all bad either.

The book has an immense literary touch. You’re quoting Sadat Hasan Manto, a giant of 20th century Urdu literature, with regard to Pakistani history, culture, and politics. How and why did Manto seem relevant to contemporary Pakistan?

Manto is best known for his short story “Toba Tek Singh,” a powerful parable about the absurdities of Partition in 1947. But Manto’s other writings, and many of his real-life experiences, foreshadowed the issues that still loom large. He wrote fearlessly about the country’s troubled nationalism, the instrumentalization of blasphemy, and the schisms that cut across society, in stories and essays that, with some tweaks, could have been written today. His work is also graphic, earthy, and filled with a cheeky and subversive humor that is true to the best work on Pakistan. Manto is the ultimate antidote to the saccharine portraits of what Pakistan is, or could be, that are favored by Pakistanis ideologues.

We learn from the book that there was a plot to kill veteran activist Asma Jahangir when she opened up against human rights abuses in Balochistan. Journalist Hamid Mir survived a suicide attempt when he reported about the human rights violation and insurgency in the same province. You were expelled from Pakistan for reporting on Balochistan. What’s the reason behind Balochistan’s information blackhole and what can the media do when there is no access?

Balochistan is the story nobody’s heard of outside Pakistan, and few inside the country are particularly aware of. It’s strange, just by dint of its size and location: This is a province that accounts for 43 percent of the landmass of a sizable country, wedged between Iran and Afghanistan. And it’s always been a reluctant part of Pakistan, with periodic uprisings against the central government since the 1940s. Part of the obscurity stems from the fact that its latest revolt, that started in the mid-2000s, is relatively small in size, and, from a Western perspective, of limited interest because the rebels leading it do not, for the most part, subscribe to an extremist Islamic ideology.

But I came to realize that the conflict had an importance greater than its size. It was a product of a powerful fault line that runs deep across the length of Pakistan – the tension between the marginalized people of the peripheries and a powerful, army-dominated center. There’s been periodic uprising by disgruntled Sindhis, Pashtuns, and Balochs, always directed at Punjab and military-centric governments. And that, in turn, stems from the great unresolved question: what do they all share, as Pakistanis?  The original idea – Islam – is clearly not enough.

You describe Pakistan’s central debate as “between two frontiers — Anwar Kamal Khan representing the old ways, Baitullah Mehsud as the harbinger of a new order that justified its violence with a lumpen version of sharia law.” You extensively relied on these two identities to frame the book, while overlooking the current non-violent movement in former Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and their stories of standing against both identities and even the atrocities of the Pakistan establishment.

You’re referring to the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement or PTM, a major Pashtun civil rights group that rose to prominence in recent years, as I was finishing the book. The PTM wasn’t around a decade ago, when I was hanging out with Anwar Kamal, the Pashtun politician who waged a private war against the Taliban. At that time, the honorable Pashtun tradition of pacifist politics was represented by the Awami National Party, a party rooted in the anti-colonial-struggle of the 1920s and 1930s, then struggling for survival. A string of Taliban suicide attacks devastated the party, killing several of its leaders and, ultimately, driving it out of its urban stronghold in Karachi.

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Since then, the PTM has clawed back some of that ground, thanks to the charisma of its young leader, Manzoor Pashteen, and to the appeal of a message that inspires Pashtuns tired of being portrayed as either Taliban terrorists or the victims of violence. I do mention the phenomenon in the book, though, through the story of a former intelligence officer who approached me after I was expelled from Pakistan. He had worked with the spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), and painted a frank picture of how the agency worked from the inside. When I met him in Europe where he lives in exile, I asked what motivated him to come forward. It partly came down to his identity as a Pashtun.

Unlike many Western journalists who focus more on a country crippled grappled with terrorism and religious extremism, you have deconstructed Pakistan in an unprecedented way in the book while depicting ethnic and religious identities and their looming threats over the country and the powerful military playing the shots. How do you see the future of Pakistan?

The terrifying wave of Islamist militancy — suicide bombings and many thousands of deaths — that threatened to rip Pakistan apart for about a decade following the Red Mosque siege in Islamabad in 2007 has thankfully receded. But the issues that gave rise to the militant explosion remain unresolved. Much evidence suggests that Pakistan’s generals have not renounced their ardor for the Islamist proxy fighters who have wreaked so much havoc. But they have, for expedient political and financial reasons, forced many of these groups underground for now. And the rivalry with India, which has driven that policy for decades, has only gotten worse, in part as a result of the Hindu nationalist government of Narendra Modi. So while things have quieted in Pakistan there is little reason to believe, alas, that they will stay like that.

Do you think new geopolitical alignments and Pakistan’s inclination toward China and the enmity for India will bring more oppression for ethnic minorities in Pakistan amid the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC)?

Pakistan’s pivot towards China goes back decades – don’t forget, it was one of a handful of countries that publicly supported Beijing after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre – because China offers cherished support to Pakistan’s military, such as covert assistance with the nuclear weapons program, without the kind of demands made by the United States and other Western countries about cracking down on Islamist militancy. As relations with Washington reached a nadir following the operation to capture Osama bin Laden, Islamabad moved even closer to China, in the shape of the China-Pakistan Economic corridor, originally valued at $46 billion.

But despite the rhetoric about a boundless China-Pakistan relationship — “higher than the mountains, deeper than the seas” — I suspect there are limits, and I think they are becoming more apparent. Chinese loans and other financial assistance can carry a high cost, and as the coronavirus pandemic exacts a stiff economic price in the coming years, we may see China call in its chips with countries like Pakistan. China’s harsh treatment of its own Muslim citizens in western Xinjiang province is likely to strain relations, no matter how much Prime Minister Imran Khan tries to glass over the story (or pretend he hasn’t read the reports of those abuses).

Lastly, can you share any memories of the senorita, as you call her in her profile, the prominent human rights lawyer Asma Jahangir who called spade a spade? After she passed away following a stroke in 2018, how big a vacuum did her death create in Pakistani civil society?

After Osama bin Laden was killed in Abbottabad in 2011, Jahangir redoubled her criticism of the Pakistan’s most powerful generals, calling for their budgets to be slashed and their powers to be reined. “Useless duffers,” she memorably called them on television. That’s perilous talk in Pakistan at the best of times, but in that tense moment, with the army particularly sensitive to criticism, it was borderline foolhardy. About a month after bin Laden’s death, an investigative journalist named Saleem Shahzad was found dead floating in a canal, with signs of torture. Most journalists blamed the spy agency. In an interview a few days later, Jahangir was asked if it was not dangerous to continue with her caustic, mocking attacks on the military. “I’m sure it is,” she replied. “But we all live dangerous lives here.” And so it remains, for those who speak truth to power in Pakistan.