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

War in Pakistan” headlines opens a segment on the nightly television news report. “More Troops in Pakistan,” is the advice of President Obama’s top military adviser, Adm. Mike Mullen, and reported in the morning papers (September 16, 2009).

What War? Where, by the way, is Pakistan? Why are we fighting there? Who are we fighting? How many of our soldiers have died there? Do we know who the enemy is? Which side are we on; do we even know who we want to win? Why does so many of the local populace support the Taliban? Don’t they understand why we are bombarding their cities?

This is a book in which you need a map to read. Unless you are familiar with the geography of Pakistan, a good map is essential to be able to following the travels of Nicholas Schmidle in To Live or to Perish Forever; Two Tumultuous Years in Pakistan. As the book begins, it is tempting to just keep reading, passing over foreign names looking for the story; but soon you find yourself lost in the names and places. Once you flip to the front and begin to follow Schmidle, back and forth, plotting his journey and contacts the conflicts and their geography context begins to unravel. From Gilgit in the north of Pakistan, through Islamabad in the west, spending lots of time in the North-West Frontier Province around Peshawar the most explosive area, to Karachi and Makran on the seashore in the south Schmidle travel the roads, uses public transportation, and takes the last, and only, flight out of a town.

The title of the book is taken from a 1933 pamphlet by Chaudhry Rahmatt Ali, “Now or Never: Are We to Live or Perish For Ever?” In this document the name PAK(i)STAN (i.e., “Land of the Pure”) was derived from the five Northern units which was then part of India: Punjab; North-West Frontier (Afghan) Province; Kashmier; Sind; and, Baluchistan.

Pakistan is a place of heavily armed guards in front of private homes, shops, and hotels; with roadblocks in each town, around corners, and especially on rural roads. Up ahead, around the bend, government or rebel, friend or foe, never sure, and frequently just plain robbers. A place where you never know who, or even why they may be checking. Maybe the message that you were an expected and “approved” visitor never got down to the road warrior, trooper, or policemen. Perhaps you were welcome this morning, but now seen as a serious hostile. The local government contact or militant leader which had arranged for your safe passage earlier may have since gone out of favor with the group, and now considered evil by those holding the guns and demanding ID and vehicle check.

It is into this environment and political tinderbox that Schmidle traveled and spent two years before being deported by the government, only to be allowed back for another short visit before being kicked out again. How did he do it, meeting all these key fugitive militants, sticking out like a sore thumb, in a place where people were blowing up each other? A fair haired, light skin journalist who was going into places, and meeting people from where other reporters had not returned (Daniel Pear, for example).

It took a lot more than simply trying to hide by holding a newspaper in front of your face during a road block. General audacity, good luck, dressing locally, dyeing his hair, and timing visits when combatant groups were desperate to the get their message and side of the story out to the world were key factors. Schmidle also spoke local languages (studied Persian at Tehran University, and learned Urdu in Pakistan), a positive factor when dealing with any ethnic group.

In meeting with the Jihad and Taliban leaders, describing the geography, culture, and telling of the conflict and history of slaughter between Muslim sects, Schmidle’s books paints an expansive picture of the people and their circumstances. These contacts bound the relationships to him, and he to us in the writing; a personal introduction to these militants as people with real concerns.

Was I allowed to mourn someone who had just led a rebellion?

On the other hand, if I didn’t let myself feel sad, I would be cheating my dead friend. Ghazi (Abdul Rashid Ghazi) had taken risks time and again when he reached out to his colleagues and friends to introduced me to them. Having a reference from him was like having a backstage pass to the wild world of radical Islam. I owed it to Ghazi-and to myself-to feel remorse. It didn’t mean that I supported his views. But he was a friend. (pp. 150,1)

Along with speaking the language, good timing, and lots of good luck; having the special touch of being able to identify with a person also served Schmidle well. To demonstrate the special talents of the author in connecting with the assorted groups and tribesmen in that part of the world; he tells of one occasion where he had his own “spiritual bond with the divine” at a Sufi festival in Sehwan, a town about two hundred miles north of Karachi:

dancing, called dhamaal … soon he (a dhamaaler) was gyrating, with his limbs eventually trembling with such fierce and tight control. … Clouds of hashish smoke rolled through the tent and the drumming filled the space with a thick, engrossing energy.

I stopped taking notes, closed my eyes, and began nodding my head. As the drummer built toward a feverish peak, my mind-and body-drifted unconsciously closer to him. Before long, I found myself standing in the middle of the circle, dancing beside the man with the jiggling earlobes. …

In his day, Qalander preached to all the faithful, regardless of creed, and invited them to create a spiritual bond with the Divine. ….It didn’t matter whether I was a Christian, Muslim, Hindu, or atheist. In that moment, I understood why pilgrims braved the great distances and the heat and the crowds to be near the shrine.

While spun into a trance, I forgot about the danger, the phone calls, the reports of my disappearance, and the police escort. (pp. 231-2).

Why would an organization such as the Taliban, heavily associated with ethnic massacres (Hazaras) and suicidal bombing often exploding in places of worship and open markets killing women and children, gain favor and support from the populace? How do they prosper, in spite of a strong secular heritage? Why would a government with the active support of US Army behind them be threaten and have to resort to “emergency rule,” or marshal law, just to hold an election? Schmidle provides two basic reasons for the local support of the Taliban:

The first is the failure, often because of abandonment and corruption, of local officials in maintaining any resemblance of law and order, resulting in high crimes rates and general chaos.

The Taliban, at least initially, brings stability and order to an area it takes over.

The second, and widespread among the population, is huge discontent with the lack of land reform; causing a major class distinction between the few landlords and the masses in poverty, almost serfdom circumstances.

Descriptive of the situation, the last chapter in the book, entitled “No Mercy in their Hearts,” covers the scene and the associated events which took place with the assignation of Benazir Bhutto.

Schmidle is a good writer, and tells the event of his two years in Pakistan well. Besides a better map, with all the acronyms, initials, and unfamiliar names a good glossary of terms and people would have been helpful. The book is hightly recommend to gain an understanding of the place, people, and issues in Pakistan. It tells us in stark detail exactly what there is there, and just what there is to lose.

I also had the opportunity to view the one hour BookTV After words discussion of the book and author on CSPAN2 (July 5, 2009). From reading the book and watching the cozy interview with Ralph Peters, a columnist for the New York Post and strategic analyst for Fox News, Schmidle comes across as an amicable youth. You may not like his friends, or the company he keeps, but you have to admire his drive in pursuing the story. Like the young, he appears is either ignorant, or simply ignoring the dangers of the world and the results his action may have on himself or to others.

With my brother and father both being active-duty Marines-my dad a general and my brother a young officer, fighting jihadis in Iraq-my mom was worried about how my story would go over in their lives and careers. When it came time for security clearances and background checks, they now had to worry about my writing in the national media about being buddies with prominent Pakistan jihadis. (p. 151)

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

Nicholas Schmidle

Henry Holt and Company, NY

254 pages 2009