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FDL Book Salon Welcomes Nicholas Schmidle, To Live or to Perish Forever: Two Tumultuous Years in Pakistan


[Welcome Author, Nicholas Schmidle and Host, Russ Wellen, who covers nuclear disarmament and foreign affairs for Scholars & Rogues, Newshoggers, and Huffington Post – bev]

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

Doesn’t it seem like only yesterday that, to many Americans, what Pakistan meant was the smiling proprietors of businesses in our cities and larger towns? "Those Pakistanis," we’d think, "they assimilate so nicely."  And who can forget the man who effectively served as the face of Pakistan? The late Qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan reigned over world music in the nineties.

After 9/11, though, when we learned that its intelligence agencies sponsored the Taliban, which had hosted al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, Pakistan became a nation non gratis to many Americans. Nor was Pakistan the first country that American Nicholas Schmidle thought of reporting from when he sought to kick off his journalism career.

After securing a two-year writing fellowship in February 2006, he hoped to spend it in Iran. But when Ahmadinejad was elected president, chances of obtaining an extended visa receded and he chose Pakistan instead.

Among the first lessons we learn from the author is that Pakistan is actually an acronym of the names of the northwest India states that became Pakistan. In fact, he seamlessly integrates a crash course on Pakistan’s history into the volatile events to which he bore witness during his stay.

After arriving in Pakistan, it wasn’t long before Schmidle found he was able to compensate for his blue hair, six-foot height, and fair skin with his knowledge of Urdu — as well as with an innate chutzpah. Thus did he insinuate himself into the good graces of everyone from top government officials to leaders of nationalist parties to extremists. In Pakistan, even the militants can’t seem to help themselves from acting as gracious hosts and loquacious interview subjects.

The author’s first self-assigned task was to visit madrassas around the country. He also attends a workshop titled "Madrassas and the Modern World," to which academics have somehow lured "two dozen crotch-scratching, Taliban-supporting mullahs" out of the madrassas in which they teach. The mullahs are subjected to some specious advice such as, "There’s nothing un-Islamic about a credit card. You all are missing out on the world." But they soon become convinced of  the need to improve their teaching techniques.

The author visits Baluchistan, the vast undeveloped desert-like province that opens up to the Arabian Sea. He meets with the head of the separatist Baluchistan National Party, Akhtar Mengal, whose main concern is former President Musharraf’s dream of a "seaside metropolis." The Chinese are assisting in development of a deep-water port in Gwadar. As with plutocracies everywhere, the wealth seems to bypass the people of Baluchistan. Before he’s imprisoned by Pakistan for two years, Mengal asks Schmidle: "Why does the world keep neglecting our screams?"

The Gwadar development also turns out to be pivotal in the downfall of the most compelling figure in the book: Abdul Rashid Ghazi. Along with his brother Aziz, Ghazi ran Las Masjid. Doesn’t ring a bell? Try Red Mosque.

The first mosque built in Islamabad, it served one of Islamabad’s most expensive neighborhoods. Furthermore Ghazi impresses Schmidle with both his genial nature — he reminds the author of Jerry Garcia — and his pragmatism. It’s all the more surprising then that the Red Mosque became not only a refuge for the Taliban, but a veritable fortress.

Soon Ghazi’s men take hostages, including six Chinese women from a massage parlor they raided. Because the Chinese had invested hundreds of millions in Gwadar they pressured Musharraf to protect their people in Pakistan. You know the rest: Ghazi and the Taliban he harbored became Pakistan’s version of Waco and the Branch Davidians, but to the tenth power.

Despite a government clean-up faster than Ground Zero after 9/11, the author estimates that as many as 1,000 of those inside the Red Mosque were killed. Ghazi’s brother Aziz was apprehended slipping out wearing a burqa, but Abdul manned the battlements until the last. Schmidle attempts to make sense of his descent into a Pakistani David Koresh.

Moving on to the contested Swat region, the author arranges to visit powerful Taliban leader Maulana Fazlullah, known as the Radio Mullah for his broadcasts that have won him a devoted following. In another of the inadvertently humorous moments that the author captures, he asks Iqbal Khan, leader of an older Islamist group that’s now pro-Taliban, if he cared to come along.

"’You want me to come. No way,’ he said. ‘Those people are extremists.’"

Once in Fazlullah’s compound, Schmidle encounters Uzbek militants, blamed for some of the Taliban’s most brutal acts, including assassinating tribal elders. After briefly meeting Fazlullah with his "goofy smile," he’s treated to a public lashing of criminals in a scenic setting: "an alternate universe’s summertime music festival: Talibanapalooza." As the author explains, this kind of swift justice, as opposed to the slow, expensive variety the government offers,  is key to acceptance of the Taliban.

The author spends the rest of the book racing around the country as it spirals into chaos. In quick succession, Musharraf declares a national state of emergency to keep his nemesis, Supreme Court Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, from ruling against his attempt to run for a third term. Then Benazir Bhutto returns and Musharraf is forced into what the author calls an "arranged marriage" with her, even though some believe he’s behind attempts to stifle and even kill her. Musharraf subsequently relinquishes control of the army and reinstates the constitution.

Bhutto, of course, was killed, which terrorism expert Peter Bergen, as quoted by the author, called "the Kennedy assassination and 9/11, rolled into one." Most of us in the West have no idea how the nationwide rioting that followed crippled the country. "The Indus Highway," Schmidle writes, "running north and south through [the province of] Sindh, looked like an apocalyptic repo lot, lined with burning cars stretching for hundreds of miles."

Thanks to the author’s near-daredevil exploits and flair for narrative, To Live or to Perish Forever leaves us with an indelible impression of the upheaval that wracks Pakistan on a regular basis — and of its memorable people.

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Russ Wellen

Russ Wellen