Author Recalls 'Two Tumultuous Years In Pakistan' Author Nicholas Schmidle talks to host Jacki Lyden about his book To Live or to Perish Forever: Two Tumultuous Years in Pakistan. Schmidle learned Urdu, zip-lined into a Taliban training camp, eavesdropped on madrassas, and met with a militant leader linked to the kidnapping of Daniel Pearl — all on a whim and a small, innocuous fellowship.
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Author Recalls 'Two Tumultuous Years In Pakistan'

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Author Recalls 'Two Tumultuous Years In Pakistan'

Author Recalls 'Two Tumultuous Years In Pakistan'

Author Recalls 'Two Tumultuous Years In Pakistan'

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/104510943/104510932" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Author Nicholas Schmidle talks to host Jacki Lyden about his book To Live or to Perish Forever: Two Tumultuous Years in Pakistan. Schmidle learned Urdu, zip-lined into a Taliban training camp, eavesdropped on madrassas, and met with a militant leader linked to the kidnapping of Daniel Pearl — all on a whim and a small, innocuous fellowship.

JACKI LYDEN, host:

Reporters are not allowed into the Swat Valley now, so details of the fighting there are very sketchy, but a few Westerners do get in. Nicholas Schmidle did.

Three years ago, he was an aspiring foreign correspondent who assigned himself the task of tracking down Islamic militants. His curiosity took him to the Swat Valley, where he was a guest of the Taliban fighters.

Mr. NICHOLAS SCHMIDLE (Author, "To Live or To Perish Forever: Two Tumultuous Years in Pakistan"): I attended the Friday prayers at Imam Dehri, which is the headquarters and the base of the Pakistani Taliban in Swat, and we were guests of Maulana Fazlullah, who is the warlord that's leading this - who's leading the movement right now.

And after the Friday prayers, in which about 10,000 to 15,000 people attended, we all migrated to a wooden platform that the Taliban had set up on a riverbank. And on this wooden platform, the Taliban proceeded to march three alleged criminals up onto the platform and administer public lashings, and to hear these 10,000 people literally chanting down the number of lashes, like it was the final seconds of a basketball game - five, four, three - and you know, it was so indicative that the Pakistani government's writ had collapsed in Swat, four hours from the capital, part of Pakistan proper, not in the tribal areas.

LYDEN: Nicholas Schmidle wrote a book about his experiences there. It's just out, and it's titled "To Live or Perish Forever: Two Tumultuous Years in Pakistan."

Soon after he arrived, he tried to set up a meeting with Abdul Rashid Ghazi, the Taliban leader who was later killed at the Red Mosque he ran in Islamabad. Schmidle says he initially met with a Pakistani intelligence agent linked to Ghazi.

Mr. SCHMIDLE: We met one day for lunch at a nice café in Islamabad, and I told him I wanted to meet Ghazi. I wanted to understand more about his ideas and his movement and his politics. And this guy said to me, his name is Khalid Khawaja, and he actually played a very critical role in Daniel Pearl's abduction.

LYDEN: Daniel Pearl - the journalist for the Wall Street Journal. Karachi, of course, is where he was abducted and killed.

Mr. SCHMIDLE: Right. And many of Daniel Pearl's family members point to him as being the key link in the abduction. So we were meeting, and he said to me, okay, I will talk to Ghazi, and I will tell Ghazi you want to meet him, but if I tell you Ghazi's off-limits, don't let me hear that you're going around my back and trying to meet him, he said, because that happened with Daniel Pearl, and we saw what happened.

And this was, you know, at this point, I kind of said, all right, check please, and it was a very nerve-wracking experience. And I met Ghazi about a week later, and this guy looks like Jerry Garcia and had Jerry Garcia's demeanor and is so easygoing, and so this was - I mean, it was a very welcome change.

LYDEN: Now, in the end, you wrote a piece about the next generation of the Taliban, and that got you and your wife deported. What happened?

Mr. SCHMIDLE: Yeah, the government didn't respond well to the fact that there was an American journalist running around Swat and in Quetta, writing about the same sort of things that the Pakistani government would say when they were in Washington: The Taliban are coming, the Taliban are coming. Just keep us funded, keep us supplied and we'll be able to take care of the problem.

LYDEN: And we should say this, of course, is before the election. This is when President Musharraf is still in power.

Mr. SCHMIDLE: Right. And so for an American journalist to have gone into these areas and written about them and said, yes, the Taliban are coming, but no, the government is not doing really anything, and they're a very short drive away from the capital, and they've exercised total control.

LYDEN: How long is that drive?

Mr. SCHMIDLE: The drive from Mingora, the capital of Swat, where the battles are raging right now, to Islamabad is about four hours.

LYDEN: Mm-hmm. What do you think, then, of articles like "Pakistan on the Brink" or "Pakistan: Failed State"? What's your reaction?

Mr. SCHMIDLE: To describe Pakistan as a failed state is really, I think, a misnomer because Pakistani society is so incredibly vibrant. It's hard for me to imagine a failed state where tens of thousands of people pour into the streets to demonstrate in favor of the rule of law and an independent judiciary.

At a state level, there are a couple of problems, one of which is that the Pakistani government has never sold the idea of a united Pakistan to the provinces, to the smaller provinces, to those in Balochistan and Sindh and the Pashtuns in the Northwest Frontier Province, and that, in my mind, sort of underlies a long-standing failure of the state, not so much as something that's happening right now, but just that, like I said, they've never been able to convince the population that Pakistan should be the number one identity rather than one's tribal affiliation or ethnic affiliation.

LYDEN: Well, you make that point very well at the beginning of your book, where you're talking about the creation of Pakistan in 1947 and that it is these distinct provinces that you just mentioned.

Mr. SCHMIDLE: Right, I mean, the title is - the title of the book, "To Live or To Perish Forever" was also the title of a 1933 treatise called "Now or Never: Are We to Live or Perish Forever?" in which a young, Indian Muslim proposed the idea of creating Pakistan. And in this treatise, he offered the idea of combining the five northwest territories of what was a united India, Muslim-majority territories, and the acronym of these were P, for Punjab, A, for Afghania or the Northwest Frontier Province, K, for Kashmir, S, for Sindh and T-A-N, for Balochistan. And so he took, you know, took these and combined them, and this amalgamation of ethnicities and identities has always been at the heart of what the country was about.

LYDEN: The whole phrase from this intellectual who coined, you know, the idea to live or to perish forever was meant to establish Pakistan's independence. How do you read that phrase today? Because once again, that country's at a turning point. Which is it going to be?

Mr. SCHMIDLE: Right. I think that - I mean, I think that Pakistan will persevere. Like I said, because of the resilience of civil society, I don't fear the Balkanization that people talk about or the sort of, you know, Chicken Little scenarios. But it's not going to be easy. And to think that it will suddenly - that democratic rule will flourish. I mean, you realize that Pakistan has never - no government has ever fulfilled its term since 1947. Once that happens, then we can start building somewhere, but that's - I think that's just really indicative of the problems that have always pervaded the country and its politics.

LYDEN: Nicholas Schmidle. His new book is called "To Live or To Perish Forever: Two Tumultuous Years in Pakistan." Thank you very much for doing this and for taking the time.

Mr. SCHMIDLE: Thanks, Jacki.

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