The divided nuclear power of Pakistan explored in new book

An insider-look at Pakistan’s infamous spy agency and the country’s conflicts.

OUSTED PAKISTANI Inter-Services Intelligence service director-general Lt.-Gen. Mahmood Ahmed, 2000. The book documents controversies related to the ISI. (photo credit: MIAN KHURSHEED/REUTERS)
OUSTED PAKISTANI Inter-Services Intelligence service director-general Lt.-Gen. Mahmood Ahmed, 2000. The book documents controversies related to the ISI.
While most foreign correspondents typically spend some three or four years in a country before moving on to their next post, The New York Times reporter Declan Walsh spent nearly a decade in Pakistan covering the country for both The Times and The Guardian. He established himself in Islamabad with a house, a housekeeper, a 1967 VW Beetle, and a trio of dogs.
His longevity isn’t the only thing that sets his time in Pakistan apart from a more standard international journalistic experience. It’s unclear how long Walsh would have stayed in Pakistan were his exodus not forced by the country’s Inter-Services Intelligence, the dreaded spy agency, for vague sounding “undesirable activities.”
Walsh’s The Nine Lives of Pakistan: Dispatches from a Divided Nation opens with his expulsion from the country on the eve of the 2013 presidential elections and weaves through 11 largely distinct Pakistani dispatches which center on various historical figures, politicians, and regional conflicts.
In some ways, the rest of the book reads like a mystery, with Walsh retracing his steps and meeting with ex-spies to determine which of his reporting activities got the goat of someone in the Pakistani security sector. But before things get too in the weeds with the Pakistani military, like the memoir of any foreign correspondent worth its salt, Walsh brilliantly introduces the local cast of characters with whom he shares his days. “Mazloom meant ‘The Suffering One,’ which was apt,” Walsh writes of his housekeeper. “He seemed weighed down by the tribulations of a working-class life: squabbling relatives, scheming young men seeking to bed his daughter and regular attendance at funerals for unfortunate relatives struck down by disease or accidents.”
The essays are revealing and easy to digest. Walsh is able to aptly sum up decades-old conflicts into succinct paragraphs to help illustrate how the event fits into the larger Pakistan picture. Taking Balochistan, the restive province in the center of the country which has staged a series of revolts against the Pakistani military, for example, Walsh writes, “Not for the first time, the army was trying to hold Pakistan together by force, crushing its critics instead of talking to them. And not for the first time, in squeezing too hard, it seemed to be pulling the country even further apart.”
Perhaps intentionally, some of the news items that people associate most with Pakistan, for example, the 2011 US raid on the Osama bin Laden compound in Abbottabad and the political rise of cricket star Imran Khan are given only passing mention rather than chapters of their own. Instead, chapters are written on Asia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy, and Abdul Rashid Ghazi, a fundamentalist cleric killed in the siege on Islamabad’s Red Mosque in 2007.
The Nine Lives of Pakistan is enticingly written and the end of each vignette only makes you want to begin the next one, jam-packed with another cast of Baloch tribesman toting rifles and ex-spies. Maybe the only aspect lacking is any semblance of normalcy and everyday life in the country. The book is something of a white-knuckle high-octane read, with gun battles, suicide bombings, and political assassinations filling the pages even of the stories which aren’t ostensibly about those things.
By the end, I was itching to read about someone, anyone, who wasn’t involved in some way with the Taliban, or reforming the country’s cantankerous and corrupt political system – the everyday people, who can illustrate what a day in the life is like for the vast majority of Pakistan’s 212 million, not the policemen, politicians, and Pashtun tribal leaders. In the way that New Yorker reporter Peter Hessler’s memoir The Buried, which recounts his time spent as a foreign correspondent in Egypt includes pages on pages of dialogue with regular old Chinese migrant store owners in the country, Walsh’s book may have benefited from a small dose of normalcy added to the mix of what is otherwise a thrilling and illuminating read.
By Declan Walsh
W. W. Norton & Company
360 pages; $22.49