The Nine Lives of Pakistan: (Dispatches from a Precarious State)
By Declan Walsh
W.W. Norton & Company, 2020. 357 pages
Review by Jon P. Dorschner
Declan Walsh, a professional journalist, set up shop in Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan, in 2004, as the country correspondent for The Guardian. In 2012 he moved to the New York Times, and was expelled from Pakistan by the government in 2013. In his introduction Walsh describes the expulsion in detail. During the process, the intelligence officers from Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) never provided a reason for this drastic move. Afterwards, his repeated entreaties to the Pakistan government left the question unanswered. In the book’s final pages, he meets up with an unnamed ISI officer in an unnamed European city. This man with a conscience, who could no longer carry out the dictates of his agency and has resigned, provides Walsh with some closure, but, like so much regarding Pakistan, the real story remains unclear.
Although Walsh and I did not serve in Pakistan in the same time period, his Pakistan experiences overlapped with my own in many ways. I was assigned to the US Embassy in Islamabad from 1985-1987 and 1995-1997. Like him, I travelled the length and breadth of the country interacting intensely with the Pakistani people, and “teasing out its nuances and arguing with those who chose to view its problems in stark black-and-white.” For me, the book kindled old and intense memories, and provided an update on what has transpired since my departure. Walsh’s descriptions were so vivid and accurate, that I was transported instantly to many of my old haunts.
Walsh used a creative format to weave his own story with that of Pakistan. He repeats the oft-heard truism that Pakistan is a country living on borrowed time, “a country of sighs and regrets, the only one I had been in where some of its own citizens quietly regretted it had ever come into being.” Just as a cat is perceived to have “nine lives,” escaping from one situation after another, Pakistan continues to plug along, avoiding its oft-predicted demise. As a result the Pakistani mindset is characterized by a prevailing fatalism, encapsulated by the phrase Insha’ Allah (if Allah wills it), which Pakistanis routinely apply to any and all situations. Both Walsh and I heard this phrase everywhere we went.
Unlike others writing about Pakistan, Walsh does not present seas of facts and data, capped off with analysis of the country’s survival chances. Instead, he presents Pakistan by looking at the lives (and deaths) of nine colorful, yet representative Pakistanis, including a “reluctant” Islamic fundamentalist, Pakistan’s founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Pashtun and Baloch tribal leaders, a human rights activist, a provincial governor, two officers of Pakistan’s notorious Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), and a Karachi cop who specialized in “encounter killings.”
While initially the concept could appear contrived, it works beautifully. The book is far more than a series of biographical vignettes. The sketches are merely the pegs he uses to anchor the narrative. Over the course of the life stories of these colorful Pakistanis, Walsh manages to provide a systematic examination of the many dramatic events that unfolded during his nine-year tenure. This enables him to tell a complex story in a fascinating way about a country that many of his readers know little or nothing about. Unlike other authors, Walsh does not present his own opinion as to where Pakistan is headed and how it will end. Like the professional journalist he is, Walsh allows the reader to come to his/her own conclusions.
I am a South Asia specialist by profession and have therefore ploughed my way through many books written in a dry and lifeless style. Like any professional, I see this as a professional duty. This does not mean, however, that I expect general readers to do likewise. This book is an attractive alternative as it covers Pakistan in an exuberant and lively way. The reader is drawn into the stories and wants to see what happens. The result is an ideal book for a reader with little or no exposure to Pakistan, who nevertheless wants to read one inclusive book that provides an accurate rendering of the fundamentals.
The reader is immersed in a series of colorful stories that encapsulate the contradictory facets of Pakistan. The reader will learn basic facts about Pakistan as well as the challenges facing the contemporary Pakistani state and will be conversant with events covered only marginally in American media. Even though I have read hundreds of books about Pakistan, Walsh provided me with insights and details I did not know.
Walsh points out that the popular picture in the West is that Pakistan is a drab and boring place, filled with dour religious fanatics and closed minds. While such persons exist in Pakistan and are favorite topics in Western media accounts, they are the exception rather than the rule. Walsh urges his readers to understand Pakistan with subtlety rather than painting it with a broad brush and over-generalizations. Walsh falls in love with Pakistan not only because of its history and beautiful scenery, but because he finds the people to be warm, hospitable, and fun-loving. He forges close bonds and makes lifelong friends. When compelled to depart, he feels genuinely heartbroken to leave his Pakistani life behind.
Walsh is an Irish citizen, thoroughly European, and shares the disdain many Europeans express for US foreign policy, especially in the South Asian region. He makes it clear that in his view, the Americans are often their own worst enemies, devising ad hoc agendas with insufficient foresight and wisdom that leave the region worse off. One sees Walsh interacting with American diplomats from Washington and the Islamabad Embassy throughout the book. He presents a jaded picture. He confirms that Pakistanis are themselves fascinated with the American diplomats constantly featured in Pakistani media, with Pakistanis convinced that everyone in the US Embassy is a mover and shaker with great influence. As a result, Pakistani elites vie with each other to rub shoulders with American Foreign Service Officers. Walsh’s view is far more nuanced than that of his Pakistani friends and confidants. He, in some ways, feels sorry for these diplomats, and their need to constantly carry out and defend unpopular and contradictory policies.
I was surprised to see that while Walsh decries the oft-cited conspiratorial thinking of Pakistanis, he also buys into it. In Pakistan it is common to manufacture and believe in elaborate conspiracies to explain events with logical explanations. For example, Pakistanis have spun elaborate tales regarding the alleged “assassination” of Pakistan’s leader General Zia al Haq in a 1988 airplane crash. Few Pakistanis seem willing to accept that the plane crashed due to the failure of the Pakistani military to perform required maintenance, instead accepting stories of exploding mangos and machinations by differing intelligence agencies and shadowy insurgents. While not giving credence to all the conspiracy theories, Walsh seems to buy into some of them.
As Walsh points out, this mindset is partially the result of the dominant role played by ISI in Pakistani history. With ISI seemingly all-pervasive in Pakistan and linked to all manner of secretive plots and double-dealing, it is easy for Pakistanis to see elusive plots everywhere.
Sadly, I must warn the reader to be aware that there are typos and missing words in several locations in the book and that in some cases, these render sentences difficult to understand if not unintelligible. I find it difficult to understand how these glaring errors were able to pass into the final version of the book undetected.
Jon P. Dorschner is a native of Tucson, Arizona, and currently teaches at the University of Arizona. Prior to joining the University, he was a career Foreign Service Office from 1982 until 2011, serving in Germany, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria, the United States Military Academy at West Point and Washington. Professor Dorschner earned a PhD. in South Asian studies from the University of Arizona, has taught South Asian studies at the University level and publishes articles and books on South Asian subjects.