‘The invisible shield reporters from the West once had is diminishing’

Written by Amrita Dutta | November 1, 2020 6:30:45 am Pen man: Walsh worked as a Pakistan correspondent between 2004 and 2013, when he was summarily booted out of the country for ‘undesirable activities’ (courtesy: Bloomsbury)To many Indians, Pakistan is a dreary land, hijacked by religious extremism and the military. Declan Walsh’s The Nine Lives of Pakistan (Bloomsbury) tempts us with the unofficial version — absurd and violent, but never boring. Through nine portraits of battle-hardened politicians, activists and spies, Walsh, who served as a Pakistan correspondent for The New York Times for nine years till 2013, sketches a country that struggles with contradictions and mutinies. In this interview, the Irish journalist, who is now NYT bureau chief in Cairo, speaks about writing against stereotypes and the increasing difficulty of being a foreign journalist from the West. Excerpts: What did you want to do in this book that your reportage could not? Most of the West thinks of Pakistan as alternately threatening, mystifying or exotic. I wanted to give readers a sense of what Pakistan is like beyond the headlines. The nine years I was there were an explosive period, in which so many dramas took place — the fall of Pervez Musharraf, the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the rise of the Pakistani Taliban and the assassination of Osama bin Laden. But, as any reporter would know, there is so much that happens off camera. A part of my goal was to give the reader a sense of its complexity. Did you find many versions of Pakistan? The book partly uses the experiences of nine people to draw out the bigger threads of identity and religion. In a way, the nine people represent nine Pakistans. I had to understand that the apparent contradictions of Pakistan is the distinction between the public and private spheres. For Westerners, a life well-lived is of maximum transparency to the outside world. But in the subcontinent, I would find, say, that my gay friends were out to friends, not to family. I came to the conclusion that in Pakistan, the private and public spheres were separate and that was a way of reconciling differences about the place. These are some very dangerous men you write about, but with humour and an eye for the absurd. Did you find them funny? I did — and honestly, that was what made them so appealing. Pashtun leader Anwar Kamal Khan, for instance, was incredibly loquacious, like someone out of a novel. I couldn’t have made him up. The humour was something I wanted to convey about these people and about the country. I had problems with how Pakistan was represented in the Western media during this period. In particular, there was an American newsmagazine cover that showed an image of a bunch of bearded men at a protest — one of them is looking into the camera and snarling. Of course, these people are real. But if that’s the only thing that you see about a country, you get a skewed version. How important is Islam as a glue that keeps Pakistan together? It’s a very important part of the identity of most Pakistanis. But that’s separate from Islam having the ability to provide a glue that holds the country together. What is it that Pakistanis have in common? According to the cliche, it is Islam, the army and cricket. Of those three, only cricket is the uncontentious one. The big story when I was there was about the rise of the Pakistani Taliban. But centrifugal forces in the peripheries have been a feature of Pakistan since its birth. The Baloch insurgency was a sore point for the military and its perception of itself. Now, we have seen the Pashtun movement that has erupted, that has the same grievance as the Baloch. Religion does not bind over this. A Baloch, a Pashtun and a Punjabi might be followers of Islam and pray together at a mosque. But they can have very different politics and very different ideas of what it means to be a Pakistani. How do civilians think of the Taliban? For decades, Pakistanis have been told that Islam and the jihad are supporting ideas and they overlap with Pakistan’s national interest. Suddenly, to see the jihadis turning against the state, and the state not having any answers to that was very disorienting. They would fall into conspiracy theories to explain it. Ordinary Pakistanis had a very ambivalent view on the Taliban, even when things were getting bad.But there was a point after the 2014 attack on the army school in Peshawar that the public was so outraged that the military had no excuse but to go after the Taliban. The Taliban insurgency has been beaten back into a marginalised space right now. But it doesn’t mean that the core problem has gone away, which is the ambivalence of the state towards the use of militancy as a tool of statecraft. What do you think makes the deep state so powerful in Pakistan? It’s a confluence of things. In the early years, Pakistan’s politics was cha

‘The invisible shield reporters from the West once had is diminishing’
Written by Amrita Dutta | November 1, 2020 6:30:45 am Pen man: Walsh worked as a Pakistan correspondent between 2004 and 2013, when he was summarily booted out of the country for ‘undesirable activities’ (courtesy: Bloomsbury)To many Indians, Pakistan is a dreary land, hijacked by religious extremism and the military. Declan Walsh’s The Nine Lives of Pakistan (Bloomsbury) tempts us with the unofficial version — absurd and violent, but never boring. Through nine portraits of battle-hardened politicians, activists and spies, Walsh, who served as a Pakistan correspondent for The New York Times for nine years till 2013, sketches a country that struggles with contradictions and mutinies. In this interview, the Irish journalist, who is now NYT bureau chief in Cairo, speaks about writing against stereotypes and the increasing difficulty of being a foreign journalist from the West. Excerpts: What did you want to do in this book that your reportage could not? Most of the West thinks of Pakistan as alternately threatening, mystifying or exotic. I wanted to give readers a sense of what Pakistan is like beyond the headlines. The nine years I was there were an explosive period, in which so many dramas took place — the fall of Pervez Musharraf, the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the rise of the Pakistani Taliban and the assassination of Osama bin Laden. But, as any reporter would know, there is so much that happens off camera. A part of my goal was to give the reader a sense of its complexity. Did you find many versions of Pakistan? The book partly uses the experiences of nine people to draw out the bigger threads of identity and religion. In a way, the nine people represent nine Pakistans. I had to understand that the apparent contradictions of Pakistan is the distinction between the public and private spheres. For Westerners, a life well-lived is of maximum transparency to the outside world. But in the subcontinent, I would find, say, that my gay friends were out to friends, not to family. I came to the conclusion that in Pakistan, the private and public spheres were separate and that was a way of reconciling differences about the place. These are some very dangerous men you write about, but with humour and an eye for the absurd. Did you find them funny? I did — and honestly, that was what made them so appealing. Pashtun leader Anwar Kamal Khan, for instance, was incredibly loquacious, like someone out of a novel. I couldn’t have made him up. The humour was something I wanted to convey about these people and about the country. I had problems with how Pakistan was represented in the Western media during this period. In particular, there was an American newsmagazine cover that showed an image of a bunch of bearded men at a protest — one of them is looking into the camera and snarling. Of course, these people are real. But if that’s the only thing that you see about a country, you get a skewed version. How important is Islam as a glue that keeps Pakistan together? It’s a very important part of the identity of most Pakistanis. But that’s separate from Islam having the ability to provide a glue that holds the country together. What is it that Pakistanis have in common? According to the cliche, it is Islam, the army and cricket. Of those three, only cricket is the uncontentious one. The big story when I was there was about the rise of the Pakistani Taliban. But centrifugal forces in the peripheries have been a feature of Pakistan since its birth. The Baloch insurgency was a sore point for the military and its perception of itself. Now, we have seen the Pashtun movement that has erupted, that has the same grievance as the Baloch. Religion does not bind over this. A Baloch, a Pashtun and a Punjabi might be followers of Islam and pray together at a mosque. But they can have very different politics and very different ideas of what it means to be a Pakistani. How do civilians think of the Taliban? For decades, Pakistanis have been told that Islam and the jihad are supporting ideas and they overlap with Pakistan’s national interest. Suddenly, to see the jihadis turning against the state, and the state not having any answers to that was very disorienting. They would fall into conspiracy theories to explain it. Ordinary Pakistanis had a very ambivalent view on the Taliban, even when things were getting bad.But there was a point after the 2014 attack on the army school in Peshawar that the public was so outraged that the military had no excuse but to go after the Taliban. The Taliban insurgency has been beaten back into a marginalised space right now. But it doesn’t mean that the core problem has gone away, which is the ambivalence of the state towards the use of militancy as a tool of statecraft. What do you think makes the deep state so powerful in Pakistan? It’s a confluence of things. In the early years, Pakistan’s politics was chaotic, the country was fragile, and the idea of the country was not fully-formed. To pick up the slack, a strong bureaucracy and military, the two inheritances from British colonialism, stepped in. With the overthrow of Sikandar Mirza as the country’s leader in the 1950s, the military established its dominance and hasn’t really let go since. But that’s part of it. There is also Pakistan’s geostrategic importance. You see countries using this to get leverage with Western powers. You can make what looks like free money for a while, but at some point, it starts to create as many problems as it solves. Pakistan is a prime example of that. For India, Pakistan has often been held out as a warning. Is there is a more creative way of looking at our neighbour? Until recently, Indian democracy was a flawed project but it was able to hold itself up to a Nehruvian ideal. Over the last few years, we have seen the rise of Hindu nationalism and it seems that India is no longer able to hold itself out as the exception to Pakistan. The difference between the countries is not that they have extremist fringes or blocs, it is: what is the attitude of the state in regulating that? Pakistan’s problem has always been that the state has been a bad arbiter and poor at protecting the minorities. When I was in Pakistan, my progressive friends, who had a very fond view of Jinnah, were quietly dismissive of the two-nation theory. But now, they look at the way Muslims are being treated in India and say, maybe he wasn’t so wrong. Maybe, the Muslim League in the 1940s was right to fear majoritarian rule in India after all. Is it getting harder to be a foreign journalist from the West, with the the rise of China and other populist leaders and the waning of the West’s powers? Absolutely. Authoritarianism is on the rise. The kind of invisible shield that reporters from the West once had is diminishing because these countries have other options. Another factor is the internet. Governments are increasingly sensitive to the reporting that we do because more of their people are reading us in a way they didn’t before. And so, they are beginning to treat the foreign press like a troublesome wing of the local press.