In his 368-page recollection, The Nine Lives of Pakistan: Dispatches from a Divided Nation, Declan Walsh, the former The New York Times bureau chief in Pakistan, speaks to the promise and perils of Pakistan’s survival in recent decades by recalling the lives of nine distinct individuals. From the sandy terrains of Lakki Marwat to Karachi’s moody afterhours, these characters grapple with the dynamics of domestic terror, democratic activism, tribal loyalties and a newborn Pakistan. The book’s 11 chapters are backed by a decade of investigative reporting and Walsh’s signature silky prose. But the author’s personal insistence — that the stories somehow reflect his own contentious relationship with the Pakistani security establishment — undercuts the book’s objectivity and purpose.

The Nine Lives of Pakistan begins in the summer of 2004, with a brief encounter involving Walsh and Minocher ‘Minoo’ Bhandara, owner of the Murree Brewery. Greeted by an unusually prankish host, Walsh begins to view the company’s unmitigated success in the lager business as one that “spoke to a broader truth about Pakistan” — a country caught between “harsh Islamic laws” and self-serving exceptionalism. Walsh cites teenage decadence in privileged gatherings, art exhibitions on Islamist violence and the moral perversions of controversial clerics as his overarching proof. He also adds a few lines on the treatment of minority groups and women in Pakistan, both shouldering a disproportionately large burden of home-grown fundamentalism, helpless in the face of a law that enshrines discrimination.

But the author’s overwhelming reliance on anecdotes struggles to establish what he calls a “downright terrifying side of Pakistan” on a national scale. For instance, an anonymous businessman holds the algorithm to Pakistan’s deep-rooted corruption: “10 percent for small contracts, five percent for anything worth $10 million or more; three percent for everything else.” Walsh, a veteran journalist, narrates each claim at face-value.

The book navigates the tightly monitored streets of Islamabad, zooming into the 2007 Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, showdown. An instant takeaway is Maulana Abdul Rashid Ghazi’s belief that Islamic fundamentalism qualifies as a universal pursuit for social justice and civic responsibility. “His political heroes included Che Guev ara and Fidel Castro,” recalls Walsh in an intimate exchange, pointing to Ghazi’s parallels between New York’s controversial anti-crime initiatives of the 1990s and the vigilante campaign waged by female students at Jamia Hafsa, the madressah adjacent to Lal Masjid.

More importantly, the book correctly situates Ghazi’s rise and fall within the broader ambitions of Islamic revolutions in South Asia. Walsh refers to the region’s first notable ‘war of resistance’ by revivalist Muslim preacher Sayyid Ahmad in 1831. Like Ghazi, Ahmad’s demise, too, was sudden. Yet, it is the unfulfilled promise of a self-proclaimed Islamic warrior that forms the gist of a dedicated cult — the lifeblood of present-day jihad.

Declan Walsh’s recollections of Pakistan, despite its personal digressions, offers a rare collage of Pakistan’s most sensitive political, societal and foundational transitions to date

A tale of grit and valour finds its moral compass in Anwar Kamal Khan, a thick-skinned Pakhtun politician who took on the Taliban in Lakki Marwat. “It’s very simple,” Kamal tells Baitullah Mehsud, the former Taliban emir. “You kill two of my people, I will kill 10 of yours.”

Walsh traces Khan’s unflinching resolve to the rich roots of Pakhtun tradition and the thick current of smouldering pride that accompanies it. In 1747, the Pakhtun tribes formed a confederacy in Kandahar, modern-day Afghanistan, cultivating a sense of internal cohesion that deterred conquests from the likes of the Mughals, the British Raj and the Soviet Union. Centuries later, Mehsud’s Taliban were scoring four-digit casualty tolls in Lakki, but Khan and his 300-strong jirga counterparts could see the Taliban’s influence waning. “We have a saying: if a man with a bald head grows nails, then tomorrow he will injure himself,” Khan tells Walsh shortly before his demise. By 2012, the Taliban began disintegrating in Swat.

One of the highlights of the book is its impartial scrutiny of the Partition of India. The author’s brilliance reflects in his refusal to overplay frictions between Mohammad Ali Jinnah and Jawaharlal Nehru, and instead focus on the broader “haste, incompetence and cynicism” that marked British motivations at the time of Partition. Walsh turns to the orders given to British troops “to avoid any trouble unless British lives were at risk” — an implicit confirmation that the world’s greatest refugee exodus was a matter of cold indifference for the British. He also points to Cyril Radcliffe — the London barrister tasked with tracing the Pakistan-India border — who burned his papers and embraced knighthood as Pakistan and India locked horns over Kashmir.

On Jinnah’s quest for an independent Pakistan, Walsh shifts gears. Decades of systemic discrimi­­nation against Indian Muslims, underrepresentation in colonial assemblies and an untimely convergence between Nehru and Lord Mountbatten, collectively propelled Pakistan’s founding father to fall out of favour with Indian nationalists and India’s colonial masters. The end result was Pakistan, a nation caught between similar binaries of secularism and religious identities, demanding that its people stitch together the fabric of Jinnah’s creation.

The second significant takeaway arrives on human rights activism in Pakistan. Walsh, clad in a plain, baggy shalwar kameez, sets sights on Asma Jahangir — a human rights stalwart curled up in her Lahore home, a de facto sub-jail under Gen Pervez Musharraf’s regime. In Walsh’s narration, Jahangir represents a once-in-a-generation voice that reached beyond her liberal frontiers to strike a chord with Pakistan’s defenceless: minorities caught in the dark clutches of blasphemy and countless women stripped of their honour.

He forms parallels between Jahangir and Benazir Bhutto — two women deeply committed to civilian supremacy, yet representing two contrasting notions of empowerment: one uncompromising, the other pragmatic. Present-day movements such as the Aurat March, and positions taken by female journalists to rise up to politically coordinated character assassinations, reflect a similar divergence between shared goals and distinct pathways. Jahangir represents an opportunity to make those ends converge.

The inherent tension between societal tolerance and domestic extremism comes full circle in ‘The Good Muslim’, a collection of pages dedicated to Salman Taseer’s stand for the marginalised. “It was an extraordinary sight: the powerful governor of Pakistan’s most populous province seated beside a humble Christian woman in a grimy jail,” writes Walsh of Asia Bibi’s death sentence on blasphemy charges, and Taseer’s unwavering determination to share her struggle.

However, Walsh is wrong to suggest that Asia’s case was “largely forgotten” and that “no minister ... or judge” ever stood up. Critical precedents, such as the Supreme Court’s decision to acquit Asia in 2018 — in complete defiance of religious extremists — are conveniently left out of his discourse.

Among the book’s less impressive aspects is Walsh’s fixation with the Pakistani military. He confines Jahangir’s brand of activism to a “private war with the Pakistani deep state”, conveniently understating her criticism of the United States’s foreign policy imperatives, widely viewed as obstacles to civil society growth. Dubious references to television shows form the basis for more bizarre conclusions, such as the military’s hand in orchestrating Benazir Bhutto’s assassination. Walsh unleashes a streak of anecdotes in later chapters, pointing to the Taliban’s kidnappings in Waziristan and declaring Pakistan’s intelligence-based operations a categorical failure.

In May 2013, Pakistan’s interior ministry ordered Walsh’s expulsion from Pakistan, citing “undesirable activities.” Walsh dedicates an entire chapter to that development, departing from the book’s inherent goal of exploring Pakistan’s challenges to a more personal investigation. Walsh’s conclusion is simple: his counter-terrorism coverage in Balochistan rattled the Pakistani intelligence. To make this case, Walsh introduces his readers to his primary source — a pseudonymous Ashraf — who claims the agencies were obsessed with him, took his “Twitter photos” for anti-state “proof”, broke into vehicles and cracked his encryption, because to Ashraf, it surely “looks that way.”

Ashraf insists Quetta was a turning point in Walsh’s fortunes. “Their eyes were on every move you made,” narrates Walsh, encouraging vague correlations between alleged militant hideouts in Balochistan and the broader military policy. To Walsh, Ashraf is a former Pakistani intelligence official who insists that his goal is to “shine a light on the reality of Quetta” — one that has eluded Walsh for too long. Ashraf is also someone who produced letters, certificates and other documents to “prove his record” with the agencies, yet by Walsh’s own admission, he never set sights on documented evidence to back his Balochistan thesis.

The book’s lengthy digression is compensated by the gallantry of Chaudhry Aslam Khan, head of the Crime Investigation Department’s Anti-Extremism Cell, hell-bent on restoring order in boundless Karachi. “Dirty Harry”, as Walsh calls him, was a cop with a 16-month stint in Karachi Central Jail, at the top of the Taliban hit-list, and unfazed by patronage.

At the peak of MQM’s street violence, Khan set vital precedents against party gunmen in critical strongholds. “One night, Aslam, wearing civilian clothes, led a small team of officers in a commando-style raid on the MQM lair,” writes Walsh. “After an all-night gunfight, they emerged victorious and seized four truckloads of weapons. A police legend was born.”

Khan’s “hard-charging, law-breaking” approach to law enforcement made several gains against the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan, acting on intelligence leads to ravage militant hideouts by the dozens. But Khan’s death at the hands of the Taliban in 2014 revealed a fundamental truth about the country: its struggle for change is lost without succession.

Walsh appears at the peak of his powers in ‘War of the Flea’, a chapter detailing Balochistan’s delicate web of tribal loyalties, sectarian discords and decades-old practices of consolidating sardars [chieftains] for feudal liberties. The chapter makes a valuable observation on the 19th century British Raj, when tribal leaders banded together in a loose confederacy, encouraging the British to build their railway in return for complete autonomy of conduct. He recalls the rebellious three — Marris, Mengals and Bugti — that made it their life’s mission to resist Musharraf’s infrastructure programs in Balochistan, undercutting dozens of Baloch sardars that represented tribal consensus on the surface.

Ultimately, The Nine Lives of Pakistan offers a rare collage of Pakistan’s most sensitive political, societal and foundational transitions to date. In meticulous detail, Walsh blends history with first-hand evidence, to constructively challenge Pakistan’s approach to survival. Its strength lies in dissecting identity from democracy, terror from activism — even if it arrives with a fair dose of digression.

The reviewer is an Islamabad-based researcher, columnist and author

The Nine Lives of Pakistan: Dispatches from
a Divided Nation
By Declan Walsh
Bloomsbury, UK
ISBN: 978-1408868485

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 20th, 2020