Dodging Death in Pakistan
When journalist Nicholas Schmidle read that he’d been kidnapped in Pakistan (which he hadn’t), he went there to find out why. He tells The Daily Beast about that terrifying trip, his new memoir—and where Osama bin Laden might be.
When journalist Nicholas Schmidle read that he’d been kidnapped in Pakistan (which he hadn’t), he decided to find out why. He tells The Daily Beast about that terrifying trip, his new memoir—and where Osama bin Laden might be.
In early 2008, after journalist Nicholas Schmidle’s article on the Pakistani Taliban ran in The New York Times Magazine, security officials informed him and his wife that their visas had been revoked and they had to leave the country immediately. A little over a year (and one brief, terrifying return to Pakistan) later, Schmidle, 30, has published To Live or To Perish Forever, a memoir of the events that rocked the country during his time there: the Pakistani Taliban's takeover of the Swat Valley (during his visit, Schmidle sees the possessions of al Qaeda No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahiri, a recent visitor); then-president Pervez Musharraf's declaration of emergency rule; and the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. The result is a panoramic view of one of the most geopolitically significant, and dangerous, countries in the world.
“The politicians are chasing their tails, and the Taliban are jumping into pickup trucks and beginning to push out of their strongholds.”
The Daily Beast spoke with Schmidle about what it was like to read about his own kidnapping (which hadn’t actually taken place), what troubles him most about Pakistan today, and Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts.
There are several high-tension moments in the book: You witnessed a public lashing of three convicts in Taliban-controlled Swat; later, you're essentially deported; and, a few months after that, having received official permission to return, you receive suspicious phone calls from someone asking to meet with you and subsequently see reports of your own kidnapping. Was there a single moment you can point to when you were more scared than at any other?
Definitely. When I went back in August , and it was very clear that even though all of the senior members of the intelligence agencies, and the senior politicians, and the senior political and security establishment had signed off on my visa to allow me to come back, then to have gotten there and to see that there were still clearly forces within the intelligence agencies that were determined not to have me stay there. I’d met with President [Asif Ali] Zardari two days earlier before this incident in August started happening! The phenomenon of reading about your own kidnapping is purely harrowing. When you call the soon-to-be president—clearly the most powerful man in the country—and people are just like, “Well, we'll do what we can, but....” There was just a sense that there was absolutely no center of power that could resolve such a crisis.
It's very interesting (and terrifying) that you literally had just met with the president-elect, and he was fine with you being there, but your safety still was not assured.
Totally. And I was going back to do a story that was about Sufiism. There was nothing controversial, there were no planned forays into the tribal areas or even the Northwest Frontier Province or Baluchistan, nothing to do with madrassas or Islamic militants. It was a story about the Sufiism in Pakistan, and how this potentially could be an indigenous bulwark against the rise of Islamic extremism. It was the kind of story that the Pakistani government is always talking about how there aren't enough of.
It offered a great moment of closure, and yet also a moment of deep sadness, because I knew that I wasn't going to be able to go back till I was 40 or 50 or 60 and they no longer felt threatened by me.
You published widely while you were in Pakistan, yet there's not nearly as much overlap between your articles and the book as I would have expected. How did you divvy up material for the articles and the book?
The book proceeds chronologically from the time that I first arrived in Pakistan in February of '06 till the time that I was expelled the first go-round in January of '08. And then the epilogue is sort of a very brief return in August of '08. The latter half of the book is in many ways pegged or tied around major events. What I tried to do was to have a parallel narrative: both the narrative of Pakistan and also my own narrative.
What do you think is going to happen next in Pakistan?
I think we need to be most worried about the insurgency beginning to jump across the Indus River, into the Punjab. The Indus River is kind of a natural boundary that has I think until now to some extent been holding the insurgency, containing the insurgency to the Pashtun areas. There are many, many, many dynamics driving the Taliban, but by the same token, also there is a huge ethnic component. I mean, you could make the argument that it's a nationalist movement as well. The biggest concern is that if the Taliban move, if the Taliban ideology jumps across the Indus River, and begins to gain mass appeal within the province of Punjab and in Sindh—if that happens, then all bets are off. I mean the stability of the country.
I've always been one of those people who've said [the prospect of] Pakistan falling apart is far-fetched, and way oversensationalized. The problem, though, is that if you see these Punjabi jihadi groups lining up with the Taliban, if you see average villagers sympathizing with the Taliban for whatever reason—there was a great story in the Times talking about how the Taliban have sort of manipulated class, the landlord culture, to gain sympathy—if this starts happening in the more populous parts of the country, it doesn't bode well at all. And the biggest concern is that the military establishment and the political establishment seem very content—and they should be, because if they could maintain the insurgency where it is, that would actually be a huge accomplishment. The problem is that their interest in preserving the status quo is a very passive interest, and the Taliban's interest in overthrowing the status quo is a very active interest. It doesn't really leave you with a warm feeling in your stomach, that the politicians are sort of chasing their tails and the Taliban are now jumping into pickup trucks and beginning to push out of their strongholds.
You mention that you come from a military family. Have they read the book, and what do they think about it?
My mom said to me, “You promised me you were going to be careful, and all the time you were in Pakistan you were telling me you were careful, but according to Chapters 2 and 7, you weren't being careful at all!” I think that the more she reads the book, the happier she is that I've been declared persona non grata and have no real intention of going back.
What’s next for you, because obviously Pakistan isn’t.
Now I'm trying to diversify a little bit, by necessity as much as by will. We'll see. I'm taking assignments as they come, and there's no grand scheme to replace this book yet.
Where has been your favorite place to report from?
The Pashtun areas of Pakistan are fascinating, and so surprising in what you first see, in that you've heard about these storied areas where there's all these sympathies for the Taliban and everyone's very conservative, and then you get there and are overwhelmed by the hospitality. In terms of the exhilaration of knowing that you're seeing something that was historic, [that] was probably the trip that I took to Swat in the fall of '07, right before the army came in. The Taliban were marching—as they were about to conduct this public lashing—they were marching the criminals, the so-called criminals, up onto the platform. At that point, my mind was reeling. Anything was possible. If the tall Saudi with the long beard and the $50 million bounty on his head comes walking out of one of these cars, I wouldn't be surprised. It was just that type of surrealness.
Well, tell us: Where is Osama bin Laden?
I don't have any real gut feeling. You've heard arguments be made for the fact that he's in Chitral, which is one of the districts north of Swat. There were some reports a couple years ago that he was up there. It was followed by reports that there were Americans with short hair checking into hotels up there and bringing things like treadmills? It was pretty funny. I think it's really difficult to know. North or South Waziristan is certainly going to be the most hospitable. At the same time, it's constantly being flown over by [U.S. military] drones. The fact that a lot of these senior al Qaeda members have recently been picked off in North and South Waziristan would suggest to me—if I was al Qaeda and I was trying to figure out where to station my leader, I probably wouldn't have them all be in the same place anyway. I think that the next time we find some information or hear we have some track on Osama bin Laden, I wouldn't be surprised if it's not even inside the tribal areas. But, who knows? That's the $50 million question.