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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

A Conversation About Pakistan

FPC Briefing
Nicholas Schmidle
Author and Reporter
Foreign Press Center
Washington, DC
June 26, 2009

Date: 06/26/2009 Location: Washignton DC Description: Reporter and author Nicholas Schmidle dicusses what it was like to be an American journalist reporting in Pakistan during a Washington Foreign Press Center roundtable on June 26, 2009. © State Dept Image

3:30 PM EDT


MODERATOR: Welcome to the Washington Press Center. Today, we have freelance journalist Nicholas Schmidle, who is going to talk with us all about a conversation about Pakistan. Without further ado, I’ll give you Nicholas.

MR. SCHMIDLE: Thanks, thanks. Thank you for having me on and thank you all for coming this afternoon. I much appreciate it, considering that I know everyone wants to be chasing the Michael Jackson story. (Laughter.) So to be able to free a couple of hours, or an hour or so, to come talk about Pakistan is, like I said, much appreciated.

So as I mentioned, I’ve written this book about Pakistan. It’s called To Live or to Perish Forever: Two Tumultuous Years in Pakistan. And the book is based on the two years that I lived there. And so I’m going to talk today just – try and keep it 15, 20 minutes. And the book is a first-person account proceeding chronologically from the time that I arrived there in early 2006 until the time that I was deported in early 2008, and then with an epilogue when I went back in August of 2008 and was kicked out a second time.

So -- but there are a couple of themes that are strung throughout the book that I’m going to discuss now. Three of them are the importance of ethnic politics and the way that ethnic politics are often overlooked in analysis of Pakistan. The second is the paranoia and schizophrenia that is sort of guiding state policy to some extent, and we see this play itself out in the government’s relationships with various militant groups, and we see to some extent this in the government’s reaction to my deportation and whatnot. And the final theme that I’ll talk about is the rise of the Taliban.

So To Live or to Perish Forever. You’re potentially wondering where this title came from. The title comes from a 1933 treatise written by a young Indian Muslim proposing the idea of Pakistan. And in this treatise he writes that we, as Indian Muslims, are facing extinction if we don’t create our own state. And the name of this treatise was “Now or Never, Either We Live or We Perish Forever.” So this is where the title is lifted from, this treatise.

Now, in that same treatise, the young man – his name was Choudhary Rahmat Ali – introduces the name of Pakistan. Now, Pakistan has two meanings. On the one hand in Urdu, Pakistan means land of the pure. Pak means pure and stan means land of. So you know, Afghanistan is land of the Afghans, Tajikistan, et cetera.

On another plane, though, it represents the amalgamation of identities and ethnicities in Pakistan. So because each – in this treatise, he proposes Pakistan as representing each letter in the name representing a different province. So the P stands for Punjab, the A for Afghania, or the Northwest Frontier Province, the K for Kashmir, the S for Sindh, and the t-a-n for Baluchistan. When the “i” – they didn’t worry about the “i” too much, so they took the “i” out, they smashed it together and then they had Pakistan. So it is this amalgamation of ethnicities that accounts for much of the country’s dynamism, and to some extent, much of the instability that we see also.

And if there’s one place that is really a microcosm of all of this, it is Karachi, which is the largest city of about 18 million down on the coast on the Arabian Sea. And it was Karachi where, in 1947 at the time of the partition, many of the Indian Muslims who were living on what was then united India but on the other side of the border, moved and settled in. And these people were known as the Maharajas, or those who had made the pilgrimage, if you will.

So two years – exactly two years before the book actually hit the newsstands, which was – or hit the bookstores, which was May 12, 2009, these tensions in Karachi, these ethnic tensions, boiled over. And on that day, the chief justice of Pakistan was set to deliver an address, an anti-government address in the city of Karachi. Now, the chief justice, you may have sort of heard about this vaguely. He had been suspended by President Musharraf and that had become a symbol for the resistance and the opposition and whatnot.

So President Musharraf was up against a wall, and there was only one political ally of his with any real street muscle, and that was this Maharaja-dominated party known as the MQM. And Musharraf more or less asked them -- just make sure that the chief justice doesn't leave the airport.

So I wanted to get there. I wanted to see what was going to sort of play out in the streets. There were former prime ministers saying that all the right – all the ingredients were there for the breakout of another mini civil war. I mean, it was very sort of – very ominous as this date of the chief justice’s address was gathering near.

So I left what was a perfectly good dinner party in Karachi one evening – I mean in Islamabad one evening, got on an airplane and landed in Karachi. And now I get to Karachi and I’m the only – I immediately get off the airplane and I check my messages, and the hotel that’s supposed to pick me up has called and left a message and said that, sorry, we can’t send a car to get you because the airport is totally blocked off. And the MQM, this ethnic party, has blocked off all of the roads of access getting to the airport and they’ve parked buses at every intersection and they’re burning cars and they’re firing in the air and the whole city is paralyzed.

And so, you know, I’m getting this message and it’s 2 o'clock in the morning and I thought, how am I – now I’ve got to go get a taxi. So I run out of the airport and I run to the other side and I run up to the taxi stand, and I said, “One taxi, please, to the Embassy Inn Hotel.” And the guys looks at me and he says, “Sir,” you know, and he looks around and he points to all the people that are sleeping on the grass and the fact that there are no taxis, and he said, “There’s no taxis here.” The whole place, the whole city is frozen.

So I start walking out of the airport, and as I’m walking out of the airport you can – people are stopping and saying, oh, you better not go, you’re a blonde, you know, they’re out there, they’re shooting, people have got their cars on fire. And I’m thinking to myself, you know, I usually like to work alone as a journalist, to travel alone, not sort of travel in with a gaggle of other journalists. And I thought, okay, if there’s one time that I wished I had a traveling companion, it was right now.

So just as luck would have it, there’s a guy standing in front of me, and I call out to him and I said, “Excuse me, sir. Could I just walk with you?” I don’t know where you’re going, but could I just sort of accompany you?” Turns out this guy was the head of Karachi’s anti-violent crime cell unit, who had been on vacation in Islamabad, had been on the same airplane that I was on, and had been called off of his vacation to come back in anticipation of the riots. So I jump in his car, he takes me to my hotel, and I eventually get to sleep at around 6 a.m.

So the next morning – this is May 12th and this is the day that everything is supposed to happen. So I’m just going to read a very short passage, if I can find it.

“So on the morning of May 12th, after a few hours of sleep, I walked on to the roof of the Embassy Inn hotel to have a look over the city. Shahrah-e-faisal, the main road connecting the downtown area to the airport, was empty. Hawks circled above, buoyed by thermals radiating off the asphalt. Gas stations had switched off the pumps and closed so that rioters couldn't burn them down. Convenience stores, office buildings, and even the lobby at the Embassy Inn had draped thick curtains over the window to prevent bricks from crashing through.

“But the absence of traffic made you wonder if all the preparations may have been for naught. How could there be riots with no people? So I heard the horns first. Down the road, a caravan consisting of more than 40 trucks, buses, and motorcycles was inching its way around a bend, heading in my direction. The men had crowded on top of the buses, waving the plain red flags of the Awami National Party,” which is one of these – this Pashtun ethnic party.

“So the ANP, the Awami National Party, caravan represented a flotilla of warships heading to battle. And buried somewhere in this mass of vehicles and red flags there was an amplified voice barking out commands. The distortion of the speaker made it hard for me to understand what he was saying, but I gathered from watching the activists that it had something to do with violent disobedience. The men put down their red flags, leapt off the bus, and began throwing rocks at parked cars and homes. Others snapped branches off the trees that decorated the median and swung them at low-hanging telephone wires. I heard the deep-throated chuck-chuck-chuck of shotguns being fired on the air. At that point, the roof struck me as a bad place to be standing, so I headed inside.”

Now, by the end of the day, more than 40 people had been killed in clashes that were, by their very nature, ethnic clashes. And this, in my mind, also signaled the end of President Musharraf in the way that now he was playing on these very base emotions to be able to hold on to his level of support. And this is another – this is also playing itself out today in Karachi. The Pashtuns, the group that was sort of following this red flag on this day, many of the Pashtun neighborhoods in Karachi have now been taken over by Taliban and Taliban sympathizers. And the MQM, this Musharraf ally, is – has – getting in intense gun battles with these Pashtun neighborhoods.

So this is – now, I think this is a pretty good pivot to talk a little bit about the paranoia of the state and the way that play these various groups off of one another. So during the May 12th riots, at the same time this was happening, back in Islamabad, the Red Mosque was – or it was known Lal Masjid – was amassing weapons and preparing for an uprising against the government. Now, the mosque – you have to understand that Islamabad is a very, very quiet, very dull town. A friend of mine dubbed it low self-esteem-abad (ph), because there was never anything to do. (Laughter.)

And so the government could see that all of this was happening, and yet for some reason chose to ignore it. And the notion was that maybe they were using this to be able to play up the Taliban threat to the U.S. government and whatnot. And so it really – in late 2006, I began developing a very unique relationship with the guy, the Imam who was running the Red Mosque. His name was Abdul Rashid Ghazi. And for some reason he was very open to me sitting with him for hours and just sort of watching the way the mosque operated and listening to the sermon that his brother was giving. And he was very open in talking to me also about his relationship with various jihadis.

And there was one morning when I was sitting there talking to Ghazi and I said to him – I said, you know, so what is that (inaudible)? I said that must be new. This was like amongst his arsenal of weapons. And he said, “No, no, that’s not new.” It was an AK-47. He said, “No, no, that’s not new.” And I said, “No, no, but that right there.” And I was pointing to this fat cylinder underneath the gun’s barrel. And he said, “Oh, that.” He said, “That is a grenade launcher that a friend just gave me a couple days ago.” And he started explaining to me how the grenade would perfectly lob – the launcher would lob a grenade over the wall and be able – it was perfect for advancing armies if there was a tall wall in between. I’m sitting there in the Red Mosque seeing this tall wall, thinking these guys have got – they know what’s coming, right?

And it was about two months after that when the government began surrounding the mosque and eventually took over this mosque and killed this guy. Now, this was – it was a really unique response, emotional response for me, when the government paraded my friend, my contact, this jihadi, in front of the television to say that, you know, we got him, we finally killed him. I mean, he was a guy who had become an enemy of the state and they just launched this uprising in the middle of the city.

And so that evening I sat down and I wrote an editorial for – first for Slate that was later published by the Washington Post that was titled “My Buddy, the Jihadi.” Now, you all know as writers, we don’t pick our headlines, right? (Laughter.) So the piece was significantly more nuanced than that.

But “My Buddy, the Jihadi” was not the best title, considering that my father is Marine two-star general, and my brother is a Marine lieutenant who was serving in Iraq at the time. So my mom picks up the newspaper that Sunday, picks up the Washington Post, and she calls me – she was there living in Japan – and I can hear her hyperventilating on the phone. She’s going, “Nick, did you forget who your father was and your brother is? There’s this article titled “My Buddy, the Jihadi.” And you know, my dad is going to have to potentially go before the Senate some time if he gets another – if he gets promoted. And they sort of – they cull through your family history, and now it’s on paper that I’ve been hanging out with these jihadis. So I think that was actually a stressful moment to be in the family.

But you know, you could also – it also illustrated something – it began illustrating something that the government was not too keen on, and that was that, how could this American journalist have gotten so close into this mosque? Now, there’s always the notion in Pakistan amongst the Pakistani elites and the establishment that the Western press just doesn’t understand Pakistan, never did, never will, because they don’t speak the language, because they don’t wear local clothes, because they don’t travel around. So a year into my fellowship, when I’m wearing local clothes, speaking local languages, and traveling all over the country, people would say, “There’s no way you can be a journalist. You must be working for someone else.”

So you know, it became this sort of double-edged sword where you couldn’t win, you couldn’t – there was no way to win. Now, this sort of – this paranoia played itself out in early 2008. I had just finished publishing a story in the New York Times Magazine called “Next Generation – Next Gen-Taliban,” that profiled this emerging generation of dangerous militants along the border.

And two days after the story came out, five police officers showed up in our driveway and handed me a deportation order and said that, you know, your visa is good for another six months, but we’ve revoked it, we’ve cancelled, and you and your wife are both to leave the country within the next hour.

So my wife was upstairs studying for her Arab exam that she had the next morning. She was the only non-Muslim American to ever enroll at the International Islamic University, and she had just been commissioned to begin hosting a reality TV show in Urdu in which she was making over Pakistani women. So she was very reluctant to leave. She was saying there’s no way, I love this place, I’m not leaving Pakistan.

I thought, you know, if we can back two years in history when I first moved my wife, who was from New – she’s a blonde Jersey girl, to Pakistan. To hear her now saying, there’s no way I’m leaving Pakistan. I love this place; I thought this is – we’ve got to be able to capture that – (laughter) – somehow.

So she had this very good contact. She was also the dietician at the five-star hotel in Islamabad. And one of her overweight contacts happen to be a relative of the prime minister. And so this is Pakistan – I mean, this is Pakistan that connections could get you anywhere. And so we called this guy and said, you know, listen Monsieur, we’re really, really in a bind. I’ve got five police officers in the driveway. They’re going to kick me out. And this guy says to me, don’t worry about it. He says, right now, I’m playing bridge with Musharraf’s national security advisor. He says, you pass the phone to the senior most police office, and I’ll pass the phone to Musharraf’s national security advisor. So we do quick phone swap, and I look at this poor national – this poor police officer and said, you know, Tariq Aziz wants to talk to you. It’d be like giving someone – a police in the streets of D.C. to someone, saying, “General Jones wants to talk to you.” It’s just – I mean, this guy thought that he got himself into way more trouble than he wanted to.

And so – so we were kicked out in January. I spent about six months here in D.C. And then I decided I wanted to go back to Pakistan. And I was going to go back to write a story about Sufism, which was this – you know, I felt like it was this underreported story in the country. And so I was doing the piece for Smithsonian and got – I had – my name was taken off all the blacklists, was let back into the country, and about midway through this trip, I received a couple of phone calls from the same person and the same number pretending to be different people – first pretending to be a government official and then pretending to be a newspaper editor. Both of the – both these individuals, when we’ve checked up on them, didn’t exist. And so this was – I mean, this was a page ripped right from the sort of – the Daniel Pearl – the playbook that led up to Daniel Pearl’s kidnapping.

So we called the Embassy and said, you know, this is what’s happening. I’m really – I had never felt more scared the entire time that I lived in Pakistan. Because about a half an hour after that, all the local TV stations began reporting that I had been kidnapped. And I don’t know if any of you have ever read about your own kidnapping, but it’s a absolutely harrowing experience. And there is a Mark Twain quote that – “The reports of my death are far exaggerated,” or something like that. And at that point -- you know, it’s funny now to reflect on it, but it was frightening.

And I think that this goes back – I mean, this shows this paranoia of the state, you know, who is someone, we don’t know who they are, let’s just scare them out of the country. And it eventually worked. I left in a bulletproof car by the U.S. Embassy. They were intercepting all these internal communications amongst the Pakistani intelligence agencies that were watching me. And it was frightening.

Now – so why was I chased out? I think that all of this comes back to my reporting on the rise of the Taliban. And as I mentioned, I had this very, very unique window into the Taliban through this guy at the Red Mosque. So in October of 2007, before the Pakistani army began its first offensive in the Swat Valley, where they’re now fighting, of course, I took a – I got into a public bus one day and took a public bus into the capital of Swat, met a local journalist, who then proved to be my introduction to the – we spent the next three days as guests of the Taliban. And the first night, he had arranged for us to meet the Amir, the head of one of these Taliban chapters in Swat. And this kind of represented, in my mind, the old generation of Taliban. This was a political party/Taliban outfit, but not quite the guys that were making all the trouble. The TNSM was the name of this group.

And so this guy says that he’s going to host us for dinner, but the first thing we have to do, we have to get to him. And as we just start leaving the main city to go to his house, which was a couple hours outside of the city in the middle of this pine forest, we start getting phone calls that the Taliban has set up a roadblock. And the Taliban’s roadblock is between us and our guy, and they’re stopping every car to ask – to look for – to look for women who are improperly covered, to look for CD players and tape decks, and to look for foreign spies. And so here I am in the back seat of this car, wearing local clothes with my hair dyed, trying to – you know, wearing the closest thing I have to a disguise so that no one can see me, but thinking that, you know what, the Taliban are not going to be fooled. They’re going to look right at me and know that I’m not from there.

So we called up – now, this gets back to the question of connections. We call up to our guy, this commander who we were supposed to meet, and we said, listen, we can see the roadblock ahead, they’re stopping everybody, what should we do? He says, no, don’t worry about it, quick, give me your license plate number and tell me a description of your car.

So we do this, and we pull up, slowly, slowly, slowly, and the Taliban are pulling everyone off to the side for whatever reason. And we get up, and our car inches up and then slowly they just step out of the way and they let us through. And about a hundred meters, 200 meters up, our guy is waiting for us on the side of the road, and he’s just dying laughing, because he can see that we’re all sweating and, you know, my heart is beating out of my neck, I’m so nervous. And he says, he says, just relax, just relax. I told you, you’re our guests; we’ll take care of you. It’s not a problem.

So that night, we get to this guy’s house, and we’re sitting there. We had just finished dinner. It was during the holy month of Ramadan, and we had just finished breaking the fast, and he takes out his cell phone, which has all of these Jihadi DVDs downloaded. And they’re showing – he’s showing me pictures of American tanks being attacked and bombed by suicide bombers in Afghanistan and Iraq. So considering that my brother was serving in Iraq at the time, I thought, okay, I’ve got to figure out a way – this is not the time to stand up say, I’m part of the crusading army that you’ve sworn your life against, but, you know, it was also very uncomfortable.

So I changed the subject, and we started talking a little bit about Islamic philosophy, and this guy says to me, do you know – you know that Usama bin Ladin has written a book about philosophy? And I said, no. I said, no, I haven’t. He said, come in this room; I want to show you something. And we go into this room, and there’s a bookshelf of all of his al-Qaida paraphernalia, and there’s a letter that he had received from Mullah Omar, there’s a stack of DVDs from all of the various Afghan provinces and states in Iraq where there had been attacks, and then there’s this backpack at the bottom. And he says – actually, he said that the book that I want to show you is in that backpack, and I promised the person who left that backpack that I wouldn’t touch it until he returned. And so I’m sitting – you know, so I’m like ribbing this guy, giving him a hard time. I said, Iqbal, I said, who’s the person who left the backpack that you’re so worried about? And he says, this bag was recently left here by Ayman al-Zawahiri, al Qaida’s number two, he said, and he’s going to come back for it and it has to be in the exact same spot it was when he left. And at this point, I went into the other room and grabbed my local journalist friend and I kind of whispered in his ear, hey, I think it’s time for us to go back home. And so we went back home.

Now, this – you know, to get back to the sort of this next-generation Taliban, two days later, we called this same chap, this – you know, Zawahiri’s friend. And we told him that we were heading to Maulana Fazlullah’s camp. Maulana Fazlullah is the Taliban commander who is now making all the trouble in Swat. And we said, listen, we’re going to Fazlullah’s camp, but we’re having second thoughts, we’re really nervous, we don’t know whether we should go or not. And we said, will you come with us, you know, you’ve got credibility and respect in these circles. And this guy says to us, no way I’ll go. He says, those guys are extremists. And at this point, you realized how severe this chasm was between this sort of the next-generation Taliban and the old-generation Taliban.

So with that, I’ll stop talking, and we can – you know, if you all have questions, and go from there.

MODERATOR: I’d suggest we go around the table and introduce ourselves. And when you do ask a question, state your name and publication. So why don’t we go around this way.

QUESTION: I’m Megan (inaudible) I’m with in the State Department.

QUESTION: Yeah. Again? I mean --

MR. SCHMIDLE: Well, we already did a quick introduction the first (inaudible).


MR. SCHMIDLE: Yeah, no sweat. If people – I think he has a question. So we’ll just – do you want to just do questions and let them introduce themselves?

MODERATOR: Yeah, sure. Yeah, go ahead.

QUESTION: Yes. My name is (inaudible) and I’m from Pakistan with Geo Television (inaudible) news international. At the same (inaudible) talked about (inaudible) and I have seen all that and (inaudible) share those views. But on the other hand, we are (inaudible) where you said about (inaudible), I don’t think (inaudible) Pakistan at this point (inaudible) that Pakistan is (inaudible) violence and Baluchistan. That is (inaudible). Do you have any opinion on that?

And secondly, (inaudible) and why is this (inaudible). (Inaudible) and what did he do and why he was killed mysteriously? Because at that time, I think the (inaudible) was (inaudible) as Mujaheddin and jihadists, who were treated by the American media and by the American Government (inaudible). Thank you.

MR. SCHMIDLE: Right. I think that both of them are very good points. I mean, the point you raised about the land of the pure, I mean, if we look at Choudhary Rahmat Ali’s treatise in 1933 when he proposes Pakistan as the amalgamation of the provinces, you’re right, he doesn’t list that as one of the rationale. But I think that we would – it would be sort of shortsighted on our part as historians to look back and not realize that that’s an awfully convenient coincidence that Pakistan also means land of the pure, when you’re – this was to be the – sort of the first nation built on the basis of religion. So I mean, I think that you’re right, it wasn’t laid out in the beginning, but I think that we could probably conclude that that was part of the rationale.

Your second point about Maulana Abdullah is a good one. You know, Maulana Abdullah was killed for those – okay, so getting back to this guy Abdul Rashid Ghazi, so in 1997 or ‘8, Ghazi was working for UNICEF, and this was kind of – this showed his way that he had a foot in both worlds. He was working for UNICEF, but he had also – his father Maulana Abdullah had been invited to go to Kandahar by one of Usama bin Ladin’s deputies to go meet Usama. So the father asked Ghazi, the younger of the two brothers, if he wanted to join him.

So the two – the father-son team travel into Afghanistan, meet Maulana Abdullah. Now, Maulana Abdullah comes back – and this is – this was according even to his son. Maulana Abdullah comes back and says that, you know, that he begins praising Usama bin Ladin, speaking very favorably of him. And then shortly after that, six months later, he was shot in the courtyard of the mosque.

Now, according to the sons, according to the family, this was the work of the Pakistani intelligence agencies. One of the things that is often not as well known about the Red Mosque was that it was very heavily involved in the sectarian battles in Pakistan, the Sunni vs. Shia tensions. And so there are other analysts in Pakistan who believe that he was shot, in fact, by Shia sectarian hit squads.

So I don’t know what our friend from Geo was suggesting with the American involvement and the jihad. I think that the jihad by that – by 1998 in Afghanistan had by all points, wound down. And you know – but he was very critical in the 1980s in terms of channeling fighters. He’s back. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: (Inaudible) in Karachi, and I know for a fact, I know (inaudible), and he was taken mysteriously from there to Islamabad (inaudible) and the mosque in Islamabad (inaudible) imam of that small mosque which turned into a big one.

And my second point was (inaudible) you know, everybody knows that this mosque, this basement mosque (inaudible) frequent visitors (inaudible).


QUESTION: (Inaudible) and many American diplomats (inaudible). Why they did not notice (inaudible)?

MR. SCHMIDLE: I agree with your analysis. I just don’t quite follow the question. I do agree that the Red Mosque was this hub of jihadi activity, and I do agree that Maulana Abdullah was – you know, he was not a – I don’t know whether he was only responsible for the izan (ph) or whether he was actually an imam at the time, but I do know that he was picked by Ayub Khan to come and start what was to be the first mosque in Islamabad. So I think both of your points are valid. I’m not sure. I can’t really speak to the questions though. Sorry.

MODERATOR: Okay, next question.

MR. SCHMIDLE: If you have another question, though, you can come back on. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Well – (inaudible) you were lucky (inaudible) my and my wife (inaudible) we had a totally different experience. We were (inaudible) in order to fly out of (inaudible) and his sister was sick (inaudible) was very serious (inaudible) and we took his (inaudible) and he had to (inaudible) at 4 or 5 o'clock. And then (inaudible) and spend the whole day at the airport (inaudible) the chief justice (inaudible) we could not get out of that airport until the next morning (inaudible). But anyway (inaudible) travel, you know, your hair (inaudible).


QUESTION: But again, my basic question (inaudible) the right way. How this – why this (inaudible) terrorist (inaudible) between Pakistan and the Pakistanis that left their (inaudible) baggage to deal with, and (inaudible) the Taliban? Are these Talibans (inaudible)? How do they get (inaudible)? So I don’t know why the American (inaudible) and the responsibilities. (Inaudible) out of those two (inaudible) Taliban group, and then (inaudible).

MR. SCHMIDLE: No, I think –

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

MR. SCHMIDLE: Well, you raise – you raise a great point. And I do think that it is – I think that it is the responsibility of American journalists. We all know – we all have read sort of, you know, the classic text on the CIA and the U.S.’s involvement in Afghanistan during the 1980s, and all realize the extent to which the U.S. Government did, in fact, leave Pakistan and Afghanistan high and dry in 1989. We’ve all – you know, many of us have read Ghost Wars and are very familiar with this narrative and familiar with this history.

My only point is that, you know, I lived in Pakistan for two years, and many Pakistanis like yourself, are very – always eager to remind us about this history that we’ve forgotten, which is critical and which is very important. But by the same token, I sometimes feel like we all – and it’s an assumption that maybe not should be – should not be made, but that we all sort of understand that the CIA was very involved in the ‘80s and, in fact, had some hand.

So I mean, I’m not ignoring that by any means. I just feel like it’s enough of a – it’s logged in the canon of South Asian and American history, and we can sort move on and analyze and understand the more nuanced things that are perhaps not so quite well understood.

Go ahead.


MR. SCHMIDLE: Go ahead. I think (inaudible).


QUESTION: Well, what I want to know is –

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)


MODERATOR: Please go ahead.

QUESTION: In general, it is impossible to win a war – in any war, without getting support from local people. So what is your impression of the local people (inaudible)? The Pakistan leaders often say that they are getting along with the United States in war on terror. But I sometimes wonder, I mean, Pakistan leaders, they themselves cannot get support from the local people.

MR. SCHMIDLE: Yeah. You know, this is a great point. I think that it’s changed. First of all, it’s different in every – obviously, like it is in the U.S., I mean, in the amount of government support and support for the Taliban. It’s different in every neighborhood, of every state, of every city. I mean, it really varies.

But what we have seen in the past two months is something very drastic that we – that it’s almost – it was an idea that actually manifested and proved itself, which is that the Taliban are their own worst enemy. And the Taliban, if left to their own devices, will ultimately eat themselves. Because I think that many Pakistanis, up until very recently, were interested, were – had a soft corner for the Taliban as an idea. These were guys that were living according to Islam. These were sort of righteous, perhaps slightly misguided, but at least their hearts were in the right places, and they were these sort of – you know, they were the “good Muslims.” And this was a notion that many Pakistanis believed. The difference, though, is that most Pakistanis never wanted to live under the guys with the beards and the guns and the turban. They didn’t want those guys actually being the police officers.

So in early – in late April when the Taliban moved, when they conquered the district of Bunir from Swat and moved within 60 miles of the capital of Islamabad, for the first time everyone – the Pakistani army, Pakistani Government, and most importantly, Pakistani people – realized that, whoa, all of a sudden, the concept, the idea of the Taliban and the reality are becoming one and, frankly, we definitely don’t want to live under these guys. So you saw this sea change of support that ultimately gave the Pakistani army the street level support that it had never had but ultimately needed to be able to wage an extended counterinsurgency in Swat.

And for the most part, I mean, there have been – there are all sorts of criticisms you can make about the way the army has done it, but they still – it has been sustained and they seem to now understand the severity of the threat, both at the level of the average Pakistani and at the level of the military.

So I do think that that support is critical. And I do think that it is slowly changing, and I think that people are realizing that, you know what, these guys are not – these guys are – they’re doing things according to – that they say are according to Islam, but they’re cutting the heads off of Pakistani soldiers who – you know, these are – the Pakistani soldiers are as good of a Muslim as the Taliban are, so why should the Taliban cut their heads off? So this is – you know, these symbolic acts, the beheading of soldiers, the lashing of 17-year-old girls that refused the marriage proposal of Talib commanders. These were the things that I think really led to people turning away from them.

QUESTION: But can you really distinguish local people from terrorists?

MR. SCHMIDLE: You can distinguish local people from terrorists. If the local – I mean, you can’t – you can certainly distinguish local people from terrorists. Now, it is – it became very difficult and has become increasingly difficult to distinguish local people from – I mean, when you’re in the tribal areas, when you’re in the border areas, when you’re in Swat, one guy that is a Talib might look more like a Talib than a guy who isn’t a Talib, you know? I mean, some of these kids who are just madrassa students, just the students of the Islamic seminaries, they might wear a long beard with a black turban and, you know, have a scarf over their shoulder and they may look every bit the Talib, but they may not be.

And yet there could be a guy who is dressed like you and I who is a little bit more – I mean, we see the picture of the al-Qaida people who were on the airplanes on September 11th, right? They were dressed – I mean, they didn’t look – they didn’t have beards, they were clean shaven, they were wearing cologne. I mean, they sort of – there is this, you know – so I think that that’s – it’s very – right, it’s hard to distinguish. And that’s why, up to a certain point, until recently, they were able to blend in and take over these areas so easily.

Should I take a --

MODERATOR: Go to New York again?

QUESTION: Hello. I am a foreign journalist and my question is as well – sorry, I came in the middle. I did not follow the discussion. My (inaudible) about the – as an American journalist, you have spent a long period of time there (inaudible). How do you think about the upcoming election of Pakistan? Because it’s very related, I think, to this discussion. Could you please tell me, as an American journalist, your point of view about this?

MR. SCHMIDLE: Sure. I mean, I think that the – it seems as though President Karzai is well on his way to being reelected, and sort of – the Americans have no choice but to accept him, sort of warts and all. I mean, despite his family’s suspicions of being involved in the poppy trade and despite corruption allegations and despite the fact that he’s not overwhelmingly popular, he still is more popular than any other national politician.

The only point that I would debate a little bit – I think that what happens in Afghanistan – despite the fact that there are American troops there, what happens at the – sort of the political level in Afghanistan is much less important to what’s happening in Pakistan. Compared to what’s happening in Pakistan at the political level is very important, I think, to what’s happening in Afghanistan, if that makes sense. I just think that Pakistan’s problems are more easily sort of exportable into Afghanistan than Afghanistan’s problems are exportable into Pakistan. They feed one another. There’s a symbiotic relationship. But I don’t know that the presidential election this summer in Afghanistan will make that much difference as to what happens in Pakistan next year.

MODERATOR: Please go ahead.

QUESTION: It may be difficult to say, but in your sense, how many active members of Taliban or al-Qaida in your sense? And also, I want to ask – it is reported that Pakistani intelligence cooperate with al-Qaida or Taliban secret.

MR. SCHMIDLE: Pakistani what?

QUESTION: Pakistani intelligence --

MR. SCHMIDLE: Uh-huh, yeah.

QUESTION: -- intelligence organization.


QUESTION: So what do you think of this?

MR. SCHMIDLE: I mean, this – I think we could probably write a book about this question alone. It’s – the al-Qaida presence? I mean, I generally – and I think that our Pakistani counterpart would agree – in Pakistan, people tend to distinguish between Taliban and al-Qaida as to whether you’re a local militant or whether you’re a foreign militant. So, you know, local militants being – you know, local militants also known as Taliban could be tens of thousands, you know, all up from the southern part in Baluchistan all the way up to the northernmost tribal agency of Bajaur. I mean, that whole belt, there could be tens of thousands. I mean, there are reports that there are as many as a hundred thousand under Baitullah Mehsud in South Waziristan’s control alone. It’s just – it’s hard to quantify.

As for the al-Qaida presence, I think we’re talking about hundreds. I think we’re talking about a few hundred foreign militants, being Arabs, Turks, Chechens, Arabs, Chechens, Uzbeks – I mean, I think those are the majority of the foreign al-Qaida presence that are in these areas.

Your second question – oh, about the intelligence agencies, I mean, from a Pakistani national security perspective, the Jihadi organizations have always been national assets. They’ve always been strategic assets that could be used to further Pakistan’s national goals and objectives in the region – in Afghanistan and India. So these – there are certainly still relationships amongst the intelligence agencies with certain members of these groups. There’s also – and I think this is really important to understand – there is a division – and this also gets back to the theme I mentioned about the sort of schizophrenia within the state – there’s a division in the mind of the Pakistani intelligence apparatus that some Taliban are good Taliban and some Taliban are bad Taliban.

Here’s the division: In South Waziristan, Baitullah Mehsud is, without doubt, in the minds of the Pakistani Government, a bad Taliban because he focuses most of his fighting efforts in Pakistan, whereas Maulvi Nazir, who is another militant commander in a different part of South Waziristan, is considered a good Taliban because he only is interested in fighting against the Americans and the Afghans in Afghanistan.

So, you know, I was talking to a Pakistani officer, a very senior general officer about a year ago. And we were talking about an incident that happened in South Waziristan in April of 2007 in which the local Taliban had kicked the foreign Uzbek al-Qaida elements out of their area. And the question was how – you know, how could they do this? There were reports – no, rumors – that the Pakistani army was helping them. And this general later told me that yes, that’s true, that we, the Pakistani military, were telling our soldiers to take off their uniforms, to wear local clothes, and to fight with the Taliban to push these foreign Uzbeks out of these – out of this area.

So you see that – I mean, these loyalties and – the loyalties and who is an ally and who is an enemy, and one ally today could be an enemy tomorrow. It’s very, very complex and very confusing. So I don’t – I think that the Pakistani army has severed some of its connections with these militant groups, but there are still some connections that remain.

QUESTION: My question is – you already mentioned Daniel Pearl, and you already also mentioned that there were news about (inaudible) also. Have you been following or were you following some security rules? Or how did you take care of (inaudible)?

MR. SCHMIDLE: Mostly – I mean, I didn’t – we met with the U.S. Embassy. After I had been there for about eight months, I had traveled into Baluchistan and had come back and had been – there had been intelligence agents that were stopping by my house and making threatening phone calls and asking our doorman, where’s Nicholas, who is Nicholas, what does he do, where is he from.

And so we got in touch with the Embassy and we asked them. And the Embassy security guy – we had a meeting and he said – he just sat there and he kept saying – he says – and it was my wife – my wife and I were sitting in front of him and he says, “I don’t know what to tell you guys.” He says, “I usually tell Americans that are in town, you know, to stay in their hotels. And you two are obviously not staying in your hotels.” (Laughter.) He said, “And you’re so far out in society. You’re so far, sort of, integrated into the society that -- ” he says, “I don’t know even know what.” And he – it was very – it was a very unhelpful and unproductive discussion.

But he – so I didn’t have really any – I mean, my security precautions were that I always traveled with a local journalist no matter where I was going. And so even if my Urdu was good enough for me to go – if I was in Karachi, even if my Urdu was good enough to – for me to go to a certain neighborhood and talk to someone, I usually always, 99 percent of the time, would bring a local journalist. Because then he could be another pair of eyes. He could be another sort of person to say, “You know what? We never drive down this road at night because this is a bad road,” or “We never go to this neighborhood before 5:00 p.m. because from 4:00 to 5:00 is when the drugs get dropped off,” I mean, these things that we as foreigners just never know.

And so there – on the time when I would receive these threatening phone calls, in fact, it was my local journalist friend who said some – he said, “This person who said he’s a government official is not a government official,” he said, “because that phone call was made by a cell phone. And government officials will never use a cell phone. They only use landlines.” I mean, I would have never known that, right? It was just something that – so it was that local knowledge that I think was so important. It’s not going to insulate you from violence, but it can help manage the risk, so --

QUESTION: My question is about a whole big trend, about – do you notice that (inaudible) allies can be enemies? And how much do you think that the Pakistani Government is a really ally of U.S.? And how much do you think that they just use them, use you, to battle the enemy? And then, you know, (inaudible) with Russians in former Czechoslovakia and nobody (inaudible) them, even of the communists.


QUESTION: So then, you know, you came to Pakistan and after 9/11 and you told then – not you, but the --


QUESTION: -- U.S. that they will be our allies or they will come in.


QUESTION: So how much can you trust such an ally which – like some friendship? Do you --

MR. SCHMIDLE: The terms of the friendship are certainly – it was only mutual consent in the strictest definition of the word. I mean, you’re right. This is a great point, and that is that – I mean, there is – there are people within the Pakistani security and intelligence establishments who, despite the fact that the president and the prime minister might say, might believe, might tell the country that we are friends with America, there are certainly still people in the intelligenc agencies who don’t believe that.

And the – I sometimes doubt the discipline, and there – you know, there are problems with discipline all over, you know, in the U.S. military to some extent. Not nearly as much, but I mean, there – these people are humans. Not everyone agrees with the policy. Now when I went back last August, I had – it took me two months for me to get my visa. It usually takes journalists about four days. Because my visa – after I had been kicked out, I had to be taken off of all of the blacklists. So everyone at the very, very, very highest levels had to sign off and say, “Okay, we’ll let Nicholas Schmidle come back to Pakistan.”

So I – going into the country, I thought, “Okay, this is good. All of the heads of the intelligence agencies have said they don’t have a problem with me coming back. I can come back, do my work, and then go home.” But my hunch is still that there was some mid-ranking person in the intelligence agencies who wasn’t happy that I had been let back, and he was the individual who made the phone calls, he was the individual who called the press and said that I had been kidnapped, and he was just playing mind games with me.

So I think that that shows that – you know, that there is one individual – I mean, this story – I was – as these kidnapping stories were snowballing, I was talking to a friend here in D.C. And I’m talking to him on the phone and I’m in Pakistan, he’s in D.C., and he said, “Listen -- ” he says, “I’ve got a call on the other line right now. It’s Fox News.” He said, “They called me five minutes ago and they said they were going to call back because they wanted to know if you had been kidnapped.” So this one guy sitting at an office in Karachi who is not happy plants a story in the local press, international press picks it up. Before we know it, Fox News is reporting that I’ve been kidnapped. It’s amazing, you know, that in this – in the way that the world is now, that one guy can do that and he can so – he can sort of inspire so much fear and so much concern. So I think it – you know, the problems of the – Pakistan’s dynamism and its diversity is, at one level, beautiful and it is fascinating. And at one level, it’s kind of dangerous because it’s very disconnected.

QUESTION: Okay. A follow-up. Maybe I am (inaudible) about India, but I see that – I assess the situation like U.S. is a better ally of Pakistan or supports Pakistan much more than it supports India, which my opinion after is much more closer on the idealistic or the ideologist – very true, U.S. with the democracy concept and everything like Pakistan. Don’t you think that the U.S. foreign policy is making here some mistake (inaudible)?

MR. SCHMIDLE: I think that the U.S.’s biggest problem, in fact, is trying to convince the Pakistanis that it wants to be equal partners with both countries, because you know the one thing that India has that Pakistan doesn’t have is a nuclear technology sharing deal with the United States. And when India and the U.S. signed that during the Bush Administration, the Pakistanis went crazy. They said, “We want a nuclear deal,” and – you know, and this was kind of – I mean, this was – this showed the fact that I think the U.S. is partners with both, it invests a great amount of money and time and energy in Pakistan, but that it sees India as a true, long-term ally.

And this is not – I mean, this is just, I think, my analysis of the way the U.S. Government is thinking. I don’t – whether that’s a correct assessment or an incorrect assessment is – you know, remains to be seen. But that is – I think that that – I think that they see Pakistan as a partner in the war on terror. They see Pakistan as an ally. But they see India as – you know, like I said, as sort of a very long-term ally.

QUESTION: Do you have any intentions to return to Pakistan if you’re able?

MR. SCHMIDLE: You know, anytime you leave a country in a bulletproof car provided by the Embassy, you have to sort of scratch your head and think – you should take that as a hint. (Laughter.)

So as I was – in fact, as I was sitting in the terminal waiting to leave this most – this last time in August, I kept trying to make a phone call to my father, the Marine general, to tell him what had happened. And, you know, I’m super-paranoid at this point, I’m sweating, I haven’t slept in two days, and – you know, I keep thinking that, oh my God, the next person is going to walk up and try and kidnap me, and I keep telling my dad this story. And every time I start telling the details, my phone keeps cutting off. And I just kind of thought, oh my God, someone get me out.

I just – I had never felt – when I landed in Dubai a few hours later, never felt better about being where I was at that very moment. So I would love to go back. I don’t know when, at what point, sort of, I feel like I’m old enough and a different enough person in their eyes that it would be safe for me to go back, so --

MODERATOR: Okay. Are there any final questions? (No response.) Well, that’s it. Thank you for coming.

MR. SCHMIDLE: Thanks. Thanks for having me. Oh. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: (Inaudible.) (Inaudible) strategy about (inaudible) – the strategy is (inaudible)? What do you see – where it will culminate and will Pakistan (inaudible) out of it, or will Pakistan really get (inaudible)? What is your view on that?

MR. SCHMIDLE: Well, I think that Pakistan’s reputation in Washington and the United States has changed dramatically in the past two months, as it has now – as it is now, you know, very assertively taking on the Taliban. I think this is – and I think that it has renewed a great deal of confidence in policymaking circles and in power circles in Washington about the resilience and about the sort of long-term or mid-term relationship that they will have with Pakistan moving forward in this, quote-un-quote, “war on terror.”

What I’m a little bit concerned about, and I wrote a piece about this in The Washington Post two weeks ago, is that the U.S. is now getting itself so excited that the Pakistanis are serious that it is confusing what is perhaps a change of will on the part of the Pakistani Government with a – with capacity, in that now, everybody is saying, okay, we’re going into South Waziristan, we’re going into South Waziristan. And that’s great because South Waziristan ultimately and eventually is going to have to be dealt with. But I don’t know that the Pakistani army remaining deployed along the Indian border and remaining very heavily involved still in Swat can represent, as Lord Curzon said at the turn of the century, the military steamroller that was the only thing that could eventually subdue Waziristan.

So I think that, you know, we have – we – Americans, the American policymakers are encouraged, but like I said, I think that it needs to be tempered with a sense of realism too about what’s possible and what’s not possible.

QUESTION: Thank you, sir.

MR. SCHMIDLE: Thank you.

MODERATOR: Thank you all for coming.

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