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To Live or to Perish Forever: Two Tumultuous Years in Pakistan

by Nicholas Schmidle

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"A fascinating account of [Schmidle's] years in Pakistan . . . The story of two Pakistans the author discovered: one beautiful and friendly, the other frightening and deadly."—Booklist

Nicholas Schmidle beat the Pakistani army into Taliban country. In October 2007, just weeks before thousands of troops, backed by helicopters and artillery


"A fascinating account of [Schmidle's] years in Pakistan . . . The story of two Pakistans the author discovered: one beautiful and friendly, the other frightening and deadly."—Booklist

Nicholas Schmidle beat the Pakistani army into Taliban country. In October 2007, just weeks before thousands of troops, backed by helicopters and artillery fire, marched into the Swat valley to battle the gang of Talibs who had taken over the region, Schmidle rode into the town of Mingora on a public bus. He drove through Taliban-manned checkpoints and took a zipline into a militant camp. Schmidle had spent the previous two years traveling throughout Pakistan, living off a small fellowship which required only that he stay in the country, learn Urdu, and write about what he witnessed.

Schmidle's telling of his gripping adventures, aided by his own deep knowledge of Pakistan's history, explains to readers the many reasons why Pakistan has grabbed the world's headlines. To Live or to Perish Forever is an eye-opening and exciting read about this essential place.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Richly reported…. Brave enough to seek out some of the country's toughest jihadis despite the grave dangers facing American reporters in Pakistan, Schmidle has amassed a treasure trove of stories.” —Joshua Kurlantzick, The New York Times Book Review

“Brave and supremely timely…. A crucial policy textbook disguised as a page-turner travel memoir.” —Ralph Peters, New York Post

“Much of the beauty of [Schmidle's] reportage comes from the fresh eye he brings to the ... array of forces contending for ascendancy.... He seeks out jihadists in the same city as did Daniel Pearl -- tribal insurgents, ethnic nationalists, old-school politicos, the military, the rogue intelligence agencies, the man on the street.... Always in evidence is Schmidle's willingness to listen and then report, with polish but without varnish.” —Peter Lewis, Barnes and Noble Review

“Schmidle offers a gripping, grim account of his two years as a journalism fellow in Pakistan, where his travels took him into the most isolated and unfriendly provinces, and into the thick of interests and beliefs that impede that nation's peace and progress…. Schmidle has, with this effort, established himself as a fresh, eloquent and informed contributor to the ongoing dialogue regarding Pakistan, terrorism and the strategic importance of engaging Central Asia in efforts toward peace and stability.” —Publishers Weekly

“Compelling and informative … If you can hardly figure out what is going on in Pakistan, this book's for you.” —Military Times

“Offers genuine insight into the travails of a nation ravaged by violence and political instability…. [A] gripping and readable contribution to understanding the embattled landscape of Pakistan” —The Globe and Mail Toronto

“Transcend[s] political commentary.” —The Telegraph (Calcutta)

“A fascinating account of [Schmidle's] years in Pakistan…. The story of two Pakistans the author discovered: one beautiful and friendly, the other frightening and deadly.” —Booklist

“A fully realized portrait of a nation struggling to survive its internal divisions and hatreds.” —Kirkus

“Nicholas Schmidle's portrait of Pakistan is worth more than a whole stack of intelligence reports. From remote Swat to teeming Karachi, he humanizes this labyrinthine country--where real danger has grown while the world focused elsewhere. Schmidle's blend of history and travelogue is by turns poignant and terrifying, but always relevant, always engaging, and more urgent now than ever.” —Nathaniel Fick, author of the New York Times bestseller One Bullet Away

To Live or to Perish Forever is foreign correspondence of the very best kind – the account of a natural traveler who has the language skills, temerity, and eyesight to arrive where outsiders rarely go and then to report revealingly on what he sees and hears. This is a personal, informative, empathetic, surprising, and entertaining book that illuminates Pakistan, a country of vital interest to the wider world.” —Steve Coll, author of Ghost Wars and The Bin Ladens

“Nicholas Schmidle's To Live or to Perish Forever is the perfect primer on post-9/11 Pakistan. Poetically and also sensibly written, the book captures from up close the seminal events of Pakistan's recent history, including the Red Mosque siege and the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. From depicting disenfranchised Baluchis to shady ISI officers, Schmidle humanizes what has become the world's most dangerous country - and epicenter of the new Great Game.” —Parag Khanna, Senior Fellow, New America Foundation, author of The Second World: Empires and Influence in the New Global Order

“A riveting read by an intrepid reporter in one of the world's most dangerous countries. Nicholas Schmidle has written a must-read book to understand turbulent but pivotal Pakistan. He crosses paths with extremists, witnesses flashpoints that transformed regional politics and, most important, makes sense of the complex challenges in south Asia. A marvelous piece of work.” —Robin Wright, author of Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East

author of the New York Times bestseller One Bullet Nathaniel Fick
Nicholas Schmidle's portrait of Pakistan is worth more than a whole stack of intelligence reports. From remote Swat to teeming Karachi, he humanizes this labyrinthine country—where real danger has grown while the world focused elsewhere. Schmidle's blend of history and travelogue is by turns poignant and terrifying, but always relevant, always engaging, and more urgent now than ever.
author of Dreams and Shadows: The Future of th Robin Wright
A riveting read by an intrepid reporter in one of the world's most dangerous countries. Nicholas Schmidle has written a must-read book to understand turbulent but pivotal Pakistan. He crosses paths with extremists, witnesses flashpoints that transformed regional politics and, most important, makes sense of the complex challenges in south Asia. A marvelous piece of work.
Joshua Kurlantzick
…a richly reported book based on his two years traveling across Pakistan…Schmidle has amassed a treasure chest of stories. And unlike some traveling correspondents who turn the lens inward, he never allows himself…to overshadow his Pakistani characters.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

Journalist Schmidle offers a gripping, grim account of his two years as a journalism fellow in Pakistan, where his travels took him into the most isolated and unfriendly provinces, and into the thick of interests and beliefs that impede that nation's peace and progress. The author reports on the murky relationship between the Pakistani intelligence agencies and the Taliban and how American bombings have actually helped the Taliban gain influence in the border regions. While Schmidle amplifies the danger an unstable Pakistan poses to its neighbors and the world, he also turns a constructively critical eye back to American support of mujahideen during the Afghan war against the Soviets and shows how American intervention was both a help and an exacerbation of problems between Pakistan and Afghanistan. As a witness to Musharraf's last days in power and the rage that followed Bhutto's assassination, Schmidle has, with this effort, established himself as a fresh, eloquent and informed contributor to the ongoing dialogue regarding Pakistan, terrorism and the strategic importance of engaging Central Asia in efforts toward peace and stability. (May)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

Journalist Schmidle lived a precarious life for two years in Pakistan during Pervez Musharraf's decline, Benazir Bhutto's return, and her assassination. He became intimate with Abdul Rashid Ghazi, the cleric killed in the 2007 Red Mosque uprising, and details meetings with jihadis, activists, government figures, and fringe characters. Eventually, he had to get out of the country swiftly. His book will somewhat enlighten readers seeking to understand a volatile country on the verge.

—Edwin B. Burgess
Kirkus Reviews
A clear account of the dystopian politics of Pakistan. Journalist Schmidle arrived in February 2006, as the authoritarian rule of Pervez Musharraf was coming under attack. Along the northern border, Taliban forces were demonstrating increasing strength, controlling broad swaths of territory and ruling with merciless efficiency. Meanwhile, traditional religious parties battled each other, particularly the Sunni and Shia Muslims. There was also ethnic strife of all varieties, among such groups as the Baluchis, Punjabs, Sindhis, Pashtuns and Muhajirs, as well as the nationalist movement for a liberal, secular Pakistan. As a young reporter, Schmidle attempted to make sense of everything by traveling to where the story was and speaking to those making it. It was a dangerous game-reporter Daniel Pearl had been kidnapped and brutally murdered a few years earlier for attempting the same thing. Schmidle traveled to the north to interview emerging Taliban leaders and arranged clandestine meetings with radical Islamic clerics, one of whom was soon killed in an attack. He traveled with ethnic rebels and marched with student protestors, all the while avoiding the attention of the ubiquitous government intelligence agencies. The author lets his subjects speak, allowing the reader to understand the logic of their emotions and intentions-some evil are evil, some benign, but all are more than political caricatures of the Western imagination. Schmidle also follows the return from exile of popular former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, and her near-immediate assassination, as well as the August 2008 resignation of Musharraf. A fully realized portrait of a nation struggling to survive its internal divisionsand hatreds. Agent: Rafe Sagalyn/The Sagalyn Agency

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St. Martin's Press
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Read an Excerpt



The cops came for me on a cold, rainy night. Four of them, hoods pulled over their heads, stood in the driveway of my home in Islamabad.

"Are you Mr. Nicholas?" one asked.

I nodded.

The senior officer who did all the talking was tall, clean-shaven, and looked familiar; we had met a few weeks earlier at an antigovernment student protest.

"What’s the problem?" I asked, my tone sounding partly curious, and yet anxious. Why would the police come to my house three times in one afternoon? When they had stopped by the first two times, I had been out, and was alerted to their visits by our chowkidar, or guard.

Now it was raining hard. We stepped under a cloth awning that covered part of the driveway to get out of the rain. The sound of water rushing off the end of the awning and splashing loudly into puddles made it difficult for me to hear.

"I have orders to take you and your wife to the airport," the officer said. "Your visas have been revoked."


The officer repeated himself and added, "You must leave Pakistan immediately." He handed me a piece of paper. The document, printed on Ministry of Interior letterhead and covered with signatures from representatives of various police and intelligence units, stated in clear, concise language: my wife, Rikki, and I were being deported.

I looked up from the paper and stared at the officer, stunned but not wholly surprised. For a while, I had suspected that something was amiss. I knew, for instance, that my phone was being tapped. A friend had told me that whenever he called me, the conversation always began with three distinct beeps, the signature sound of a wiretap coming to life, and as of a couple weeks earlier, I had not been able to receive calls from the United States. Moreover, just a day earlier, an intelligence agent from the Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, showed up in the flesh. He relayed a message through our chowkidar that Rikki and I were "living in Pakistan illegally"—and that I was "writing against Pakistan."

The cloak-and-dagger shenanigans and subtle intimidations related to a story I had written for the New York Times Magazine profiling a new, more radical generation of Pakistani Taliban. I had spent months traveling to regions under their control, and had even passed an afternoon inside a Taliban-run camp. I expected a certain amount of harassment from the intelligence goons, as they often paid courtesy visits to foreign journalists who had reported on sensitive subjects from sensitive areas. Fanatic rebels in the North-West Frontier Province certainly met this condition. Dealing with the agencies seemed to be as much a part of the job as securing a visa, arranging interviews, and actually writing the stories. But a visit from the police suggested something official—and far more serious—than the normal spook routine.

I asked the officer for a minute to consult with Rikki and ran upstairs with the deportation notice in hand. We had been living in Pakistan for nearly two years, renting a two-bedroom apartment in a large house owned by a Pakistani family. We considered Pakistan home. Rikki attended the International Islamic University, the first non-Muslim American to ever enroll. She also worked as the nutritionist at a five-star hotel in Islamabad, where her obese clients included cabinet ministers, prominent businessmen, and senior bureaucrats. Whatever problems she encountered at the university could usually be resolved with a simple phone call from one of her clients at the hotel. So when I burst through the door, out of breath, ranting about how the police were prepared to bundle us off to the airport in the next hour, Rikki promptly yet calmly replied, "Have you called Majed?"

Majed, whose real name I can’t disclose, was probably Rikki’s largest client. During their first session, Majed told Rikki that he could reduce the amount of food he ate, but that he would have trouble cutting back on the four or five scotches he drank every night while playing bridge with his buddies. I assumed his bridge partners comprised an influential bunch; Majed, who was himself related to the prime minister at the time, had been in and out of government for years. He had told Rikki to call him at any hour, that no favor was too large. "Call him," she now urged.

"Majed? Hi, it’s Nicholas. Sorry to bother you tonight, but I have a small problem. There are four police officers standing in my driveway right now, and they say that our visas have been canceled and they going to kick us out of the country."

"Huh?" he replied, sounding slightly preoccupied. I rehashed the details. He related the story, in Urdu, to someone else on his end. He came back on the line. "Listen, I am playing bridge with Tariq Aziz," Majed said in a calm, unflappable tone. (At the time, Aziz was President Pervez Musharraf’s national security adviser.) "Why don’t you give the phone to the seniormost officer, and I’ll give the phone to Tariq. Don’t worry. He’ll take care of it."

I handed the phone to the tall, clean-shaven officer and told him who was waiting on the other line. I thought about flashing a smug grin, but realized it might seem cocky—and a little premature.

The officer lifted the phone to his ear. He introduced himself. Aziz did the rest of the talking.

"Yes sir," the officer said into the phone. "Yes sir...Yes sir...Yes sir...Yes sir..."

The officer returned my phone and apologized for the disturbance. Then he and his hooded colleagues turned, walked down the driveway, and disappeared into the dark, rainy night. I ran back up the metal stairs that led to our second-floor apartment and, having thrown open the door, announced: "Majed came through. Big time."

Connections meant everything in Pakistan. If you knew the right people, things worked out. If you didn’t, you wound up on a one-way flight to Dubai on a rainy Tuesday night. But connections were a double-edged sword, and knowing the wrong people could land you in more trouble than knowing the right people could get you out of. Besides folks like Majed, I also knew plenty of rebels in Baluchistan and Taliban fighters in the North-West Frontier Province, too. Majed’s bridge partners, in other words, had saved us from packing our entire apartment into suitcases that night, but the deportation notice, covered with signatures from this-and-that intelligence agency, suggested that the state machinery had been set into motion against us. According to official government correspondence, we were living in Pakistan illegally. And wandering around without valid papers was foolhardy and stupid, if not outright dangerous.

We woke up the next morning to more rain. Low clouds spread across the verdant mountain ridge outside our windows.

I called Majed again. He had just gotten off the phone, trying to find more about our case.

"I can’t do anything more," he said. "This is way above my head. We asked the police to leave you alone, but this is above them, too. You should really leave the country for a bit."

"Did anyone give any reason for why this is happening?"

"They said something about the Taliban, your trips to Baluchistan, and your coverage of the Red Mosque. But that’s all I know," he said.

I hung up and bought the first two available seats on the next outbound flight. Forty-eight hours later, on the morning after my twenty-ninth birthday, we were soaring above the Hindu Kush Mountains—and out of Pakistan.

I went to Pakistan in February 2006, hoping to learn something about this troubled, nuclear-armed country, and about myself. I wanted to become a journalist, but most newspapers were closing their foreign bureaus, not opening new ones. And with next to no formal experience, magazine editors weren’t exactly lined up outside of my door, eager to dish out international assignments. In the rapidly changing landscape of American journalism, it seemed like the only way for an inexperienced hack like myself to try to make a name—and potentially a career—was by patching together fellowships and grant money, going somewhere newsworthy, and then praying for good luck.

The Institute of Current World Affairs was my ticket. ICWA, as it is better known, is a foundation that sponsors two-year writing fellowships around the world. Their cash flowed from toilets. Back in the 1920s, Charles Crane, the eldest son of the plumbing magnate by the same name, invested $1 million into a startup fund called the Crane-Rogers Foundation, later dubbed ICWA. The foundation survived the Great Depression and subsequent wars, and continued to send two or three people into the field every year. It operated almost like a venture capitalist fund; they sought applicants younger than thirty-five who showed an interest in foreign affairs and displayed sufficient room to grow. Seemed like a perfect fit. If there was one thing I had, it was plenty of room to grow.

In June 2006, the ICWA board selected me as a Phillips Talbot Fellow. Talbot, who turned ninety years old that same weekend, had spent the 1940s as an ICWA fellow in pre-Partition India. He began his career as a cub reporter at the Chicago Daily News in the late 1930s before being tapped for a fellowship. He went on to write several books, become an assistant secretary of state, the American ambassador to Greece, and the president of the Asia Society. I had big shoes to fill. Before I shipped off, Talbot and I had several conversations, and he told me stories from his own time in South Asia facing accusations of being a spy. While Indian Communists tagged him an imperialist agent of the United States, officers in the British Raj accused him of working to undermine their government based on Talbot’s contacts with Gandhi, Nehru, Jinnah, and, to some extent, Indian Communists. This seemed to be a common theme for ICWA fellows abroad.

"The Institute of Current World Affairs?" people often asked me. "What is it? Some sort of CIA cover?" In the past, foreign governments had imprisoned even Fulbright fellows—who are relatively well known in international circles—on charges of espionage. An obscure foundation like ICWA, I would soon discover, raised even more suspicions.

I arrived in Pakistan by accident; my fellowship was intended for Iran. I had spent the previous summer studying Persian at Tehran University, and proposed a fellowship to the ICWA board that involved my reporting and writing about ethnic minorities (Kurds, Azeris, Baluchis, Arabs) there. But shortly after ICWA granted the fellowship, the people of Iran spoke, and chose Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as their new president. Ahmadinejad was a hardliner whose vitriolic anti-American rhetoric dwarfed even that of his predecessors, who had themselves made chanting "Death to America" a staple of public life. Overnight, the prospects of the Iranian government giving an American a two-year visa to drift around and write about the country’s ethnic problems seemed, well, pretty dim.

Five months after I first walked into Iran’s pseudo-embassy in Washington (the two countries severed diplomatic relations in 1979 and housed "interests sections" in other countries’ embassies), an official there finally leveled with me. "Nicholas, this is never going to happen," he said. "Maybe you should think of going somewhere else."

But where?

Afghanistan? Too much war. ICWA funded fellowships that featured hardship, poverty, and an occasional brush with conflict, but they shied away from sending fellows into war zones where a kidnapped American could fetch tens of thousands of dollars.

Central Asia? The ’Stans sounded intriguing, but I figured that getting drunk on fermented mare’s milk with two dozen of my closest Kyrgyz friends six nights a week might get really old, really fast.

What about Pakistan? If I had my demographic facts straight, they had some ethnic problems of their own, right? What if I just took my fellowship proposal for Iran, and replaced "Pakistan" with "Iran"? After some convincing, the director of ICWA signed off on my new destination.

A couple of months later, I stumbled into Pakistan.

I crammed to make up for lost time, first by attempting to call up every Pakistani in the D.C. capital area, and then reading anything I could find about Pakistan’s history, culture, people, and religion. I soon learned about Chaudhry Rahmat Ali, the man who coined the name "Pakistan." Rahmat Ali belonged to the cast of characters—along with Mohammad Iqbal, the intellectual dubbed Pakistan’s "national poet," and Mohammad Ali Jinnah, a gaunt, sickly barrister—who helped to form Pakistan. Historians regarded Jinnah as the founding statesmen and Iqbal as the founding philosopher. Rahmat Ali, however, enjoyed less influence inside Pakistan (he was living in England during the Partition) and most accounts of Pakistan’s creation have confined him to a secondary role. "Official Pakistan," wrote a columnist in Dawn, an English-language daily newspaper, "has apparently treated Rahmat Ali as the lunatic uncle who has needed to be locked up secretly in the attic."

Rahmat Ali’s fame stemmed from a 1933 pamphlet he penned titled "Now or Never; Are We to Live or Perish For Ever?" He opened the treatise:

"At this solemn hour in the history of India, when British and Indian statesmen are laying the foundations of a Federation Constitution for that land, we address this appeal to you, in the name of our common heritage, on behalf of our thirty million Muslim brethren who live in PAKSTAN —by which we mean the five Northern units of India, viz.: Punjab, North-West Frontier Province (Afghan Province), Kashmir, Sind and Baluchistan—for your sympathy and support in our grim and fateful struggle against political crucification and complete annihilation.

Thus, the name PAKSTAN made its debut. But it was more than just an acronym for the composite Muslim-majority provinces in northern India. In Urdu, "Pak" means "pure," and thus "PAKSTAN" meant "Land of the Pure."

Rahmat Ali might have coined the name, but he wasn’t the first to pitch the idea of combining Punjab, the North-West Frontier Province, Sindh, and Baluchistan into a single political entity. Three years before Rahmat Ali’s pamphlet circulated, Iqbal, acknowledged as a towering intellect even in his own day, had proposed this imagined configuration, which was to fall under the umbrella of an AllIndia Federation. But Rahmat Ali wanted total independence from India. An upstart student radical, twenty years junior to Iqbal, Rahmat Ali noted, with due politeness and respect, that his demand was "basically different" from the one forwarded by the revered philosopher and poet. "There can be no peace and tranquility in the land if we, the Muslims, are duped into a Hindu-dominated Federation where we cannot be the masters of our own destiny and captains of our own souls," Rahmat Ali wrote.

Rahmat Ali described the fate of Indian Muslims as having arrived at an apocalyptic intersection: "We are face to face with a first-rate tragedy, the like of which has not been seen in the long and eventful history of Islam." What happened to the days when they were "custodians of the glory of Islam in India and defenders of its frontiers"? he wondered. Rahmat Ali added, in closing, "We have a still greater future before us, if only our soul can be saved from the perpetual bondage of slavery forced in an AllIndia Federation. Let us make no mistake about it. The issue is now or never. Either we live or perish for ever."

Since Rahmat Ali issued his ultimatum—"to live or perish for ever"— this question has remained foremost in the minds of Pakistanis. Millions died during the communal riots that punctuated Pakistan’s violent birth pangs in late summer and early fall of 1947. Jinnah, the slender and sophisticated lawyer, succumbed to tuberculosis just thirteen months after founding the country. An assassination in 1951 felled the first prime minister. Civil war tore the country in half in 1971. Military coups staged in 1958, 1968, 1977, and 1999 all promised to "save the nation" from depraved and corrupt civilian leadership, while all eventually becoming depraved and corrupt military dictatorships. In 2007, pro-Taliban insurgents employed dozens of suicide bombers in a terror campaign that killed nearly one thousand people—including former prime minister Benazir Bhutto.

But what else, besides chronic instability, defined Pakistan? Everything I read and heard from the leading roster of Pakistani experts sounded pretty stark: over a period of sixty years, the country had lunged from one crisis to the next, triggered by coups, countercoups, snap elections, and a whole smattering of contorted political configurations. Just keeping track of names and election years was enough to daunt even the most dedicated history buff; serving heads of state, at various points, called themselves prime minister, president, general, chief executive, governor-general, field marshall, and martial law administrator. From what I gathered, there were a few essential things to know about Pakistan: the army was perpetually in charge, the intelligence agencies were a brooding and ubiquitous force, the Islamists threatened to take over, ethnic problems portended more Balkanization, corruption plagued human interaction, and a modest arsenal of nuclear weapons all combined to make Pakistan the most dysfunctional—and most dangerous—country in the world.

And yet, I 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. These cravings led me to befriend, upon arriving, a radical cleric (who later became an enemy of the state and was killed), to pine for the smell of tear gas (because it assured me that I was sufficiently close to the action), and to sneak into a Taliban camp tucked in a valley near the Afghanistan border to witness a public lashing. (None of this required any special cunning or skill on my part; oftentimes, I would simply take public buses to places far from home and then start asking questions.) When I first arrived, I even sought out seedy hotels. In Karachi, I used to stay at a musty low-rise just because it seemed more authentic. After a bombing at the Karachi Marriott Hotel in March 2006, a Pakistani friend joked to me that my hotel might have been the safest in the city, owing to the fact that "alQaeda stays there when they’re in town."

There were plenty of things that I would have never found in a book and would have to learn on my own. Like the hazards of pan, a chew made from betel leaf. In Karachi, many men—and some women— passed time by packing a wad into the side of their mouths, which they gnawed on like a cud, extracting a red juice that stained their teeth and lips. Every so often, when their mouths filled with juice, they spat. No one warned me about how bus passengers leaned their heads out of the window and, without looking, would spit a thick, arching trail of red, minty juice down below. Exposed pedestrians and passing motorcyclists told horror stories.

Pan presented a second dilemma for me—of being mistaken for blood. When I arrived in Pakistan, the country convulsed with riots and protests against the allegedly blasphemous cartoons published in several European newspapers, including one that depicted the Prophet Mohammad with a bomb stuffed in his turban. Islamists had poured into the streets, attacking anything they thought represented the decadent West. They burned banks and KFCs, along with hundreds of cars and motorcycles. Paramilitary Rangers parked their pickup trucks, equipped with machine guns, in front of every Pizza Hut and McDonald’s in Pakistan. After a day cooped up inside my hotel, I ventured out for a walk.

I had gone about a hundred yards when I noticed crimson-colored splotches on the sidewalk and roads. I assumed bloodied rioters, or perhaps dead chickens, left the splotches.

I eventually returned to my hotel and spent the next three days convinced that Karachi was the bloodiest city in the world. Then, one afternoon, while descending a flight of stairs, I noticed that the same shade of red that I saw everywhere in the streets also stained the walls of the stairwell. I spun around quickly to face a Pakistani friend. "It’s pan!" I exclaimed, feeling a profound sense of relief. The streets, after all, were not paved with blood, and butchers didn’t just drag their headless chickens through the alleys. I was humbled. I had a lot to learn.

Over the course of twenty-three months, I traversed Rahmat Ali’s "PAKSTAN," with the exception of Kashmir, the "K" that never joined. But I did travel to Bangladesh, which Rahmat Ali proposed calling Bangistan and which acceded to Pakistan in 1947. (It seceded twenty-four years later.) My travels took me as far south as the coast of the Arabian Sea and as far north as the glaciers and towering peaks bordering China. I journeyed to the border of archrival India, west to the restive tribal areas, and everywhere in between. Pakistan covered a landmass larger than Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico combined. Diversity characterized its land and its 170 million people. A friend once quipped that there wasn’t just one Pakistan, but that each province represented its own, distinct Pakistan. This book is—in part—my humble attempt to explain the many identities and histories that exist throughout Pakistan.

The two years that I traveled through Pakistan were a particularly turbulent time. President Pervez Musharraf lost his mojo, and the Taliban gained theirs. Lawyers in black suits protested in the streets, and former prime minister Benazir Bhutto was assassinated. "You are really seeing history in the making," my grandfather once told me on the phone. "But what’s the problem with that place?" Everyone could see Pakistan making daily headlines with riots and bombs. But why? Why were the Islamists such a threat? Why did tensions between the country’s many ethnic groups never disappear, as Rahmat Ali and Jinnah and Iqbal had hoped? How did Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda henchmen make their home in the tribal areas, with so many people looking for them? And why, more than seventy years after Rahmat Ali first proposed the question, did Pakistanis, on a daily basis, still face an existential dilemma: to live or perish forever? I tried to consider these questions during every journey and every interview. I hope any answers provided are of some use, for all of our understanding.

Since returning, people have often asked me how I got around the country—how I accessed places, like Taliban camps, where no other foreigners hung out. After all, at more than six feet tall, with blond hair and fair skin, I couldn’t exactly pass for a Pakistani. So I did what I could, wearing local clothes, adopting local customs, and learning Urdu. I had showed up in Pakistan speaking enough Urdu to start, but never quite finish, a conversation. Within a few months, however, I was reading Urdu newspapers, watching Urdu television, and traveling on public buses without a translator. Throughout my time in Pakistan I was amazed that—and never fully understood why—people were so inviting and generous with their time. Some felt compelled by cultural customs of hospitality. Others wanted to get a message out. Many, I suspected, were just intrigued by the presence of a tall, blond American who spoke Urdu and ambled about in a shalwar kameez, the ubiquitous baggy-pants-and-tunic outfit.

But Pakistani culture was about more than language or clothes. It thrived on connections and contacts, evinced by Majed’s intervention on our behalf the night when the police showed up. Not all of my friends, however, were the kind that I would have brought home for Christmas. Considering that my father is a Marine general and my younger brother a Marine lieutenant, I can say with some confidence that Abdul Rashid Ghazi would not have been a welcome guest at the family dining room table. Ghazi, a pro-Taliban leader in Islamabad, ran Lal Masjid, or the Red Mosque, with his brother. In July 2007, the siblings gained international notoriety when they staged a rebellion in the center of the capital that lasted ten days and led to hundreds of deaths, including Ghazi’s own. Yet I learned more from Ghazi, and he opened more doors for me, than perhaps any other single person.

My relationship with Ghazi dated back to the spring of 2006, when a Pakistani journalist who was well acquainted with the jihadis mused: "If the Taliban ever come to power in Pakistan, Ghazi could become the amir." (Amir is the Arabic word for commander.) His prediction stuck with me; who wouldn’t want to meet a future leader, right? Previously, the government had charged Ghazi with orchestrating a terrorist plot to bomb the Parliament, Army House, and U.S. embassy. After multiple suicide bomb attacks in London on July 7, 2005, Tony Blair pressured Musharraf to crack down on the militant madrassas in Pakistan. (One of the bombers had spent time in one just before the attack.) Musharraf ordered troops to barge into Ghazi’s all-female madrassa one night. The raid turned into a fiasco, and the next day newspapers printed pictures of bloodied girls. Ghazi emerged as a leading figure in the underground, pro-Taliban movement coalescing in Pakistan.

But to meet him I needed a reference first.

The intermediary would be Khalid Khawaja, a former intelligence officer, air force pilot, and self-described confidante of Osama bin Laden. On at least one previous occasion, involving the Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, Khawaja had tried to facilitate an American journalist’s meeting with Islamic militants. Following Pearl’s kidnapping and murder, which Pearl’s wife suspected Khawaja of being involved in, a tarnished reputation now preceded him. I met Khawaja for lunch one day at an upscale café in Islamabad. I notified several people beforehand, so that if I never returned, people would know whom I was last with. Khawaja showed up on time. He was wiry thin, with a long beard and intense, vibrating eyes.

"Why do you want to meet Ghazi?" he asked.

I said I wanted to understand more about his thinking, his vision for the future, and the Taliban.

"After Musharraf, whenever that may be, Pakistan will be like Iran was in 1979," Khawaja said. "The only difference will be that, after our revolution, there will be no U.S. embassy left."

Khawaja made me feel very uncomfortable, and I was eager to hurry through lunch and get to the point. "So, can you introduce me to Ghazi?"

He said he would try. Then he stared across the table into my eyes. "But if I tell you that Ghazi is not available, don’t go trying to meet with him anyways behind my back. You understand?"

"Yes, of course."

"I told Daniel Pearl that Sheikh Gilani"—the jihadi ideologue Pearl was trying to meet when kidnapped—"was off-limits, and not to try meeting him. But he still tried," Khawaja said. He shrugged his shoulders, as if being kidnapped and killed was a logical, mild consequence of sidestepping him. I took the statement as a threat, went home, and waited for Khawaja to call. A week later, he did.

"Ghazi has agreed to see you."

I figured that if Khawaja paid deference to Ghazi, then Ghazi must be one radical dude. The first time I visited him at the Red Mosque, I told Rikki to send out a search party if I wasn’t home in an hour. When I got there, I was led from a reception area through a narrow alley to Ghazi’s residence. Two madrassa students, in their twenties, blocked the entrance to Ghazi’s door. They were sharpening a sword, one gripping the handle while the other rubbed a stone up and down the blade.

My escort, another madrassa student, spoke up. "Ghazi is expecting him," he said. The two parted. Ghazi opened the door. He looked a bit —of all people—like Jerry Garcia. He wore oval-shaped, wire-rimmed glasses, had a gray, fist-length beard, and sported curly hair that flipped wildly around his ears and neckline. Ghazi even had the former Grateful Dead front man’s easy smile and chill demeanor.

"Are you going to use that sword on me?" I joked, hoping that Ghazi could appreciate humor. He laughed. Before long, we were talking about his meeting with Osama bin Laden in Kandahar, back in 1998. My mind flashed between Khawaja, Pearl, the sword, and Osama. My gaze drifted to the Kalashnikov propped against one wall, and the pistol lying on the pillow beside Ghazi. He noticed.

"Relax, my friend," he said. "Jihad is a defensive system. You should sit here now and feel safe. Do you?" I swallowed a lump in my throat. "It would be different if you had come in, holding a weapon and making demands that: ‘I want to meet Ghazi.’ Then I would be a different man. But these are Islamic values. I have given you refuge. I have given you my word. You are in my protection."

Of course, bestowing confidence in a guy who boasted of palling around with bin Laden in his heyday carried certain risks. But Ghazi was more articulate than any other Islamist I had met in Pakistan, and spoke—in English—as though he had nothing to hide. I found his candor and contacts invaluable. When I once asked him about his links with the dangerous jihadi organization—Harakat ul-Jihadi Islami—that spawned most of the others, he responded, "We know each other well. We have a good relationship. They love me. And I love them."

Connections with someone like Ghazi could take you deep into a situation, or be able to get you out of one; dropping such a name in one place could save your life, and in another put it in further danger. But these were risks worth taking. Pakistanis had faced the dire option—"to live or perish for ever"—for decades. If I wanted to understand their country, I would have to do the same.

Meet the Author

Nicholas Schmidle is a fellow at the New America Foundation. He writes for The New York Times Magazine, Slate, and The New Republic, among other publications, and received the 2008 Kurt Schork Award for freelance journalism. He lives in Washington, D.C. with his wife.

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