Interview: Declan Walsh

Declan Walsh: ‘I hesitate to call Pakistan a failed democracy’

Print edition : October 09, 2020

Declan Walsh. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Interview with Declan Walsh, author of the recently published “The Nine Lives of Pakistan”.

Born in Ireland and settled in Nairobi, Declan Walsh is that rare man who is as much at home in Pakistan—where he spent a decade writing for The Guardian and The New York Times—as in Egypt’s capital, Cairo, from where he writes on West Asia. Blessed with a flair for words and an unerring eye for detail, he recently published The Nine Lives of Pakistan (Bloomsbury), an arresting take on the tumultuous times in the history of our neighbouring nation.

The noted writer Mohammed Hanif says about the book: “If you want to read one book about contemporary Pakistan, it has to be this.” Pankaj Mishra is equally effusive: “Walsh describes, with intellectual power and cool elegance, a much-misundersood country.”

In this interview, Walsh talks about his book and his decade-long experience in Pakistan. Excerpts.

Pakistan is widely regarded as a failed democracy in India, yet you paint an entirely different picture of a beautiful land managing its many paradoxes. Can you elaborate?

Pakistani democracy has stumbled, crashed and resurrected itself at various moments in the decades largely because of interference from an overbearing military that views itself as the country’s natural ruler. But I hesitate to say “failed”. Certainly, the Army has inflicted grievous damage on democracy, both through periodic coups and an insidious institutional influence even when civilians were nominally in charge. But the Generals don’t have an entirely free hand. Pakistan’s size, diversity and chaos mitigate against an Arab-style autocracy and strengthen a democracy that, in spite of its many flaws, has a great dynamism. Elected leaders often enjoy huge, even fanatical, support that makes them a powerful bulwark against other forces. Even in the darkest days of General Zia ul Haq’s dictatorial rule in the 1980s, the Army had to make allowances for local power brokers, and General Zia ul Haq was immediately followed by Benazir Bhutto—night and day. In my view, the paradoxes are not in opposition to Pakistan’s sclerotic system of rule—they’re at the core of it. They make it weak and resilient at once. I encountered a lot of that in Pakistan.

One constant in Pakistan has been the overarching shadow of the military. You call General Zia ul Haq a pious man and Pervez Musharraf a khaki messiah. Between Zia ul Haq’s overweening religiosity and Musharraf’s servility to the United States, who was more harmful to Pakistan?

They inflicted different kinds of damage. General Zia unleashed cultural and ideological demons that still haunt the land today: the turbo-charged blasphemy laws; the power of conservatives who look to the asceticism of Saudi Arabia for inspiration; and the coddling of sectarian and jehadi militant groups. General Musharraf, a cocky man crippled by an inflated sense of his own abilities, claimed to be the opposite of General Zia. But after 9/11, he tried to steer a line between those same militant forces and the U.S., which was his ultimate undoing. (Let’s not forget that Zia was equally an eager recipient of U.S. patronage.)

If you want to look for a villain, Zia may play the role better. But that’s also a matter of personality and the cards they were dealt during their time in power. The most consequential aspect of both periods is the steady accretion of power by the security apparatus they served and how it has adapted to changing circumstances to protect its own institutional prerogatives and privileges. The latest, quiet sophisticated iteration of military power, under Prime Minister Imran Khan, offers an excellent example.

When we blame Zia for the mushrooming of madrasas and the transformation of their role from being Islamic seminaries to recruitment centres to fight “godless communists”, can we ignore the role of the U.S. and how it had no scruples in backing a military dictator?

U.S. lip service to the promotion of democracy has long been hypocritical in Pakistan. When I arrived, in 2004, Western diplomats were falling over themselves to make excuses for Musharraf’s “controlled democracy” and, later, to cheerlead his cod philosophy of “enlightened moderation”. Over beer, one U.S. official confided that “he’s the best we’ve got”. He didn’t even have the decency to blush.

What’s most revealing about the two countries, though, is their mismatched expectations. The U.S. has always seen Pakistan in coldly transactional terms. The emotional temperature toward South Asia in Washington is nowhere as warm or engaged as towards West Asia, say, or even Russia. But the Pakistanis have frequently been wounded by perceived U.S. betrayals, even as they also play strategic games with the US. Hence the acrid quips about being treated like a used condom, etc. It’s like a really bad arranged marriage—loveless, defined by mutual interest rather than values, rocked by regular betrayals and heartache, yet with neither side able to walk away.

You talk of Benazir Bhutto’s constant sparring with the military as one of the possible reasons for her failure. By the same yardstick, will it be accurate to attribute Imran Khan’s relative success to his rapport with the Generals?

“Relative” is the key word here. We’re only two years into Imran Khan’s term, so there’s a long way to go before we can judge his time in power. So far, his leadership has been characterised by a willingness to cede space to the military in a manner that is unprecedented for a popularly elected civilian ruler. On the positive side, that has meant very little friction with the Army over Afghanistan, India, nuclear weapons, militancy or relations with the U.S.—quite the contrast with the tenures of Asif Ali Zardari and Nawaz Sharif. But does that surrender of power mean that better decisions are being taken? And has Imran Khan used the space he has been given, on the economy, in particular, to deliver on his heady promises to the millions of hopeful young Pakistanis who voted for his party? Time will tell. But in one area, press freedom, there’s been a glaring regression. Journalists are being intimidated and silenced in a way not seen for decades. TV shows are yanked off air mid-broadcast. I wouldn’t call that success.

Talking of the men behind the scene, can you tell us about the circumstances of your expulsion from Pakistan in 2013, and the role of the ISI in it?

I was at a party at a friend’s house three nights before the general election when I got a call from an unidentified number beckoning me home. I arrived at midnight to find a pick-up full of policemen at the gate. A plainclothes officer, probably intelligence, stepped forward with an expulsion letter that cited my “undesirable activities”. I had 72 hours to leave, but an election was going on, so on the last day I drove to Lahore to report on the voting. The Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) picked me up, confined me to a room at the Avari Hotel, and drove me to the airport.

After that, editors at The New York Times and myself met senior Pakistani leaders, civilian and military. What were the “undesirable activities”? we asked. But there was no straight answer; all I learned was that the ISI was behind it. Searching for an answer to that question became a kind of personal quest and became part of the book I was writing. Then, in late 2018, after I returned from a reporting trip to Yemen, I received an email out of the blue from a stranger, a self-exiled former ISI official with a story to tell. I went to meet him and he offered answers and a resolution of sorts.

Your passion for Pakistan did not dim even after the ouster. You continued to write about Pakistan. What was so attractive about the land where the Taliban killed thousands, where drones kept watch and a girl like Malala was attacked for her audacity?

One of the wonderful things about Pakistan, when I was there, was the level of access I had to people from across society. Ministers, clerics, spymasters, villagers, people who lived in palaces and shacks—they all threw open their doors, or even came by my house, and offered to tell their stories. Colleagues visiting from India often bemoaned the fact that it was much harder, certainly at the senior levels, to get that kind of access. My luck was partly a product of the times and of a number of close friendships that I developed with people who offered a sense of belonging and a kind of glimpse behind the curtain of society. It’s much harder now. As for the violence and extremism you mention, well, those others meetings showed me that there was more to Pakistan than all of that.

Early in your book you talk of the open liberal economy of Pakistan in the 1960s and contrast it with the socialist, bureaucratic redtapism of India. Yet, it was the promise of socialist reforms that brought Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto his popularity. Ironical, is it not?

The open economy of the 1960s clearly didn’t deliver widely enough. At the time, Pakistan’s wealth was famously estimated to be concentrated in the hands of 22 families. But Zulfikar Ali Bhutto also failed in key economic areas such as his botched nationalisations and stymied land reforms. Don’t forget that he came to power in 1971 on the back of a war in East Pakistan that stemmed principally from ethnic discrimination and grievances, not economic ones. And the Pakistani’s sense of economic sophistication, relative to India, continued well into the 1990s. Friends told me they were told jokes by teachers in school about Indian “clunker” cars, bad clothes, and so on. That started to change dramatically in the post-9/11 era, which is when I got to Pakistan.

What could be the possible reasons for Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s failure to bring about a more egalitarian society? Didn’t similar reasons lead to the downfall of his Oxford-educated daughter later on?

I’m not sure the struggle for an egalitarian society had much to do with it, for either Bhutto. Both were hobbled by political and family feuds, personal weaknesses and dynastic hubris. But, ultimately, their politics were defined by opposition to a military that ousted the father and horribly undermined the daughter. And Benazir Bhutto’s downfall, if you like, was a suicide bomber—a product of her stand against the extremist tempest then sweeping the country.

There is a sense of strong regional identity in Pakistan. How different are the sociopolitical challenges of covering, say, Balochistan and Waziristan?

The two areas you mention are marked by more similarities than differences—remote and stunningly beautiful areas, deep-rooted tribal societies, troubled insurgencies and dominated by the military. When I was in Pakistan, some Taliban fighters escaped from Waziristan through northern Balochistan on their way to Afghanistan.

The premise of your question is right, though. Regional identities and the tension between the Punjab-dominated centre and the restless elsewhere have always been a huge factor in Pakistani upheaval. Pashtun, Baloch, Sindhi and other groups have periodically revolted against the state, feeding off a lingering sense of alienation. The Pashtun Tahafuz Movement protest group, which has exploded in popularity among young Pashtuns, is the latest example. But, really, the pattern goes back to the colonial era when Pashtuns engaged in both peaceful and violent resistance against the centre. In the 1930s, you had the red-shirted followers of the Khudai Khidmatgar, led by the “Frontier Gandhi”, who were gunned down by colonial troops at a bazaar in Peshawar. Meanwhile, armed Pashtuns led by the Faqir of Ipi, the “Scarlet Pimpernel of the Frontier” as the British press grudgingly called him, were fighting doggedly in the mountains of Waziristan.

Today, the uprisings are a howl for greater political and economic rights. But, at a deeper level, I think they get to the unresolved question of what it means to be a Pakistani. Depending on who you ask, Islam or the army are the glue that binds the country together. History suggests that neither is enough.

Finally, in your experience, which way is Pakistan likely to swing, between a country where Malala is an outcast and Aafia Siddiqui a ‘qaum ki beti’ (daughter of the nation)?

Those two options are essentially the same country. I met Malala before she was shot, when she was a schoolgirl in Swat. In the years since then, it’s been amazing to see this preternaturally wise young woman turn a brutal scrape with death into a global platform for tolerance and progress. At home, the loudest voices are those that spurn her idealism and denigrate her reputation. But there’s plenty of supporting voices—and, in fact, other Malalas—in different guises. The question is whether the Pakistani state will give them the space, and the safety, to be heard.

I think you’re increasingly seeing a similar dynamic in India, in recent years, with the rise of populist, Hindu nationalist forces that are being fostered and protected by the state. Soon after I arrived in Pakistan, I took a trip to Delhi and was struck by how much of Nehru’s admirable idealism had survived. Now I see forces taking hold that remind me of nothing as much as the Islamists who have done so much damage in Pakistan.

When I was in Pakistan, even progressives who admired Mohammed Ali Jinnah were quietly dismissive of his “two-nation theory”. Now, looking across the border into India, some are muttering that maybe the old man was right all along. I hope not. But clearly, 75 years after Partition, all manner of national destinies are still up for grabs.

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