A Conversation With Nicholas Schmidle
Pakistan has been called the world’s most dangerous country. Do you agree?
To some extent, I do. All the reasons some people cite as factors for why its the most dangerous - ethnic tensions, militant Islamist groups, an unpredictable ISI (Inter-services Intelligence) - certainly hold true. But rather than these issues leading to the breakup of the state, I see Pakistan continuing on in a troubled, conflict-ridden scenario almost indefinitely. And the biggest reason why it’s so dangerous is that there’s no central organization or leadership.
At just over six feet tall, blond and American, it seems an understatement to say you were a bit conspicuous, yet you were welcomed into a variety of places? What does this say about the character of Pakistani people and was it difficult traveling in rural areas?
Whether or not you find it difficult to travel in rural areas is almost directly proportional to your tolerance for tea. If you can drink upwards of a dozen cups a day, then it’s easy. If your limit is two you might think otherwise. But seriously, it really goes back to the hospitality I mentioned. I never had any problems with Pakistanis being hostile because I was a foreigner, and an American no less. On the few occasions when I felt unwelcome, it was always due to the intelligence agencies and not to people on the street.
As for being conspicuous, you’re right, no one ever confused me for a local. When I was reporting about the Taliban extensively in the fall of 2007, I always wore traditional clothes and spoke Urdu in public. Anyone who wanted to listen to my accent or actually take a close look at me knew that I wasn’t a Pashtun, but at least I wasn’t wearing jeans and gabbing in English. And for my hair? To try and blend in just a little more, I took to dying it a lightish brown every few weeks. I don’t remember the exact name of the color, but it was number 36, I think. Anyway, my wife didn’t like the idea at all. She wanted to make a rule that if I felt that dying my hair was necessary to go somewhere, that should be an indication that I shouldn’t go. She had a good point, but ultimately, number 36 prevailed.
While traveling in the Swat Valley and other border areas where the Taliban held sway, what were the most striking and unexpected things you witnessed or learned?
The most striking thing was, without doubt, the hospitality I received. On my first night in the Swat Valley, I was invited to the home of a pro-Taliban leader for iftar, the ritual meal that breaks the fast during Ramadan. We spent hours eating and talking that night. The irony was that half the time he was boasting of his relationship to al-Qaeda leaders or discussing his plans to go fight against Americans in Afghanistan. But we had a mutual friend and, per custom, the host welcomed both of us, despite the fact that I was American. Similar things happened all the time and never ceased to amaze me.
The most unexpected thing was witnessing an all-male parade in a town just outside of North Waziristan, where older men were looping jasmine necklaces over the heads of young boys who they found cute. I was told that this was a tradition in the town, and that with all the womenfolk kept at home, men sought other ways to fulfill their sexual desires. I wasn’t prepared to see these burly Pashtun men with thick beards and turbans, sometimes toting guns, wearing jasmine necklaces.
Are the ordinary people in those areas waving a genuine “welcome Taliban” flag or is it a welcome tinged with desperation?
The Taliban have overrun these areas through brute intimidation. The overwhelming majority of areas under their control are populated by Pashtuns, and the Taliban have certainly played to ethnic sentiments of victimization and nationalization in some areas to build genuine support. But even where there is some curiosity about the Taliban, it’s usually because the Taliban are offering to provide what the state cannot – quick justice, better law and order, etc. And there are people all over Pakistan who think of the Taliban as righteous and honest Muslims. But I’ll tell you, almost none of these people would ever want the Taliban actually to be in charge.
The Obama administration is seeking to dedicate $3 billion dollars to help train and equip the Pakistani army to fight the Talibani militants and $7.5 in civil aid. Do you think the money will actually filter down to people who really need it?
The short answer? No. Because the people who really need it are the people living in the Tribal Areas and the Taliban-run parts of the North West Frontier Province. And nothing happens in those areas without approval from the local Taliban chieftains. They don’t look too kindly on US-funded militaries or USAID-built schools. Which is too bad, because it's the people in the tribal areas who are the biggest victims of this conflict. There are opportunities, however, to support Pakistanis in other parts of the country, namely the more populous province of Punjab or in Karachi. And it is in these areas where the Pakistani government – and US assistance – should be focused.
You were reporting this book in 2006 and 2007. A lot has happened there since then. How much of your reporting is still relevant?
Yes, this book captures a definitive time period, but it’s a period that I believe will be the most pivotal for Pakistan’s trajectory in the near future. The book is as relevant, if not more, today than it was when I first witnessed the events that are described inside. I say this for several reasons. First of all, while some of the characters in the book have been killed, arrested, or simply faded out of the picture, all of the themes surrounding their importance remains in tact, whether it be ethnic nationalism in Baluchistan, factionalism in Karachi, the ongoing shifts within the religious establishment, or the rise of the Taliban in the Pashtun areas along the Afghan border.
Your travels and conversations put you in contact with some pretty unsavory characters, many of whom were staunchly against the United States and had experience fighting American soldiers in Afghanistan. And yet, your father and brother are both Marines. Was it difficult to reconcile your family background with your desire to learn more about the jihadists?
Occasionally, yes. There was one evening when I was eating dinner with a pro-Taliban leader in the Swat valley who insisted on showing me jihadi-filmed videos of al-Qaeda blowing up American convoys in Iraq. That was very uncomfortable because my brother was serving in Iraq at the time. But I was in the middle of nowhere with this guy and relying on his goodwill to keep me safe. I chose not to disclose that my brother and dad were part of what he considered America’s “crusader military.”
Throughout the book you describe your very intimate and dynamic relationship with Abdul Rashid Ghazi, the militant who led the Red Mosque until his death in July 2007. How did you build that relationship and gain his trust?
What might have been otherwise proven difficult - gaining a jihadi’s trust - was made much easier by the fact that Ghazi was a sharp, media-savvy guy that wanted attention. I think he also knew that I wasn’t just looking for a choice quote or two to put in that day’s story, so I was able to be patient, to sit with him for hours, and to just listen to him talk about his life. Most people, when asked, really like talking about themselves. It loosens them up.
You spent a day at a Taliban camp. How did you manage to arrange that?
I had a journalist friend based in Swat with good contacts among the Taliban leadership there. He made a couple calls and they agreed to host me. I took a public bus from Islamabad to Mingora, the main city in Swat. Within a couple hours of arriving, my friend and I were hanging out with local Taliban commanders. The scariest thing about the day at camp might have been getting into the camp itself. We had two choices: drive all the way there, but be forced to cross through some pretty hostile, Taliban-held territory; or park on one side of the river and take a zip-line a few hundred meters over the river and into the camp. We opted for the second. Watching the car - and our chances of making any kind of getaway - disappear on the far side of the river was a very disorienting experience.
Is the Inter-Services Intelligence [ISI] as nasty as everyone says?
I hate to sound like an ISI apologist, but I just don’t believe that ISI is the monolithic nefarious beast that it’s made out to be. That would be giving it too much credit. The biggest problem for the Pakistani government, whether it be the ISI or the prime minister’s office, is the lack of unity and discipline. Of course, with the resources and nature of the ISI’s job, the stakes become much higher than, say, an undisciplined tourism ministry. So any talk about ISI reforms have to be treated cautiously, as there’s no guarantee that official ISI policy will find its way to the guys in the lower ranks. All that being said, I wouldn’t trust them for anything, that even went for the few friends I had that worked for the intelligence agencies.
Can you say something about the Graham Greene quote that introduces the book? Why did you choose this?
The quote is from The Quiet American by Graham Greene. The book floored me when I first read it. There’s a scene where the narrator, an experienced but somewhat jaded English journalist named Fowler, is talking to the American named Pyle, who we are led to assume is a CIA agent. Pyle is a neoconservative from another generation, that is, he’s got this ideology that Jeffersonian democracy trumps all, especially evil Communism, and he tries to cram what he sees with his own eyes into the framework of this ideology. Fowler, meanwhile, simply writes what he sees.
And so Fowler makes this very powerful statement about humans trying to understand one another, and the futility of doing so, and adds, “Perhaps that’s why men have invented God - a being capable of understanding. Perhaps if I wanted to be understood or to understand I would bamboozle myself into belief, but I am a reporter; God exists only for leader-writers.” It was such a profession of identity, this Cartesian notion that “I write what I see with my own eyes, therefore I am a reporter.” That’s what my own book is - an account of Pakistan through my own eyes.
On the night when you were deported, you confide that you were a little excited, though your wife, Rikki, considerably less so. Why was that?
As a fellow of the Institute of Current World Affairs, the idea was that for two years I would never go home. But that didn’t apply to Rikki, so she’d been to the States twice to see her friends, sit in a bar, and do “American” things. Both times she was more than ready to come back to Pakistan, but she still had those briefs splashes in the West. I never went home, so I was really craving certain tastes. I needed a break. Of course, the break I got was a lot longer than what I hoped for.