In 2013, after nine years in the country, New York Times reporter Declan Walsh was given 72 hours to leave Pakistan – even as it was on the verge of the first peaceful transfer of power between civilian administrations in the nation’s history.
A few years later, in 2019, he was back in the news after it emerged that the US administration under President Donald Trump was unwilling to prevent his arrest by Egyptian authorities, forcing him to briefly leave the country with the help of his native Ireland.
Over some of that interim period, Walsh decided to put down his impressions of his time in Pakistan, choosing to tell the story through the portraits of nine remarkable individuals like human rights activist Asma Jahangir and Baloch leader Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti.
I spoke to Walsh about the violent period that he was witness to in Pakistan, how foreign correspondence has changed and how he sees the country from the outside.
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If you had to summarise for the reader, what took you to Pakistan? And what eventually drove you to write this book?
Well, you know, I went to Pakistan, really, as a bit of a naïf. I mean, I’m Irish. So unlike British people, I do not have the kind of cultural memory of South Asia, India, Partition – all of that – that I think a lot of my British counterparts had. And I arrived in Pakistan from Kenya, where I’d been living for five years working as a journalist.
I arrived there not knowing a huge amount about the country. It was 2004. Of course, I knew that this was a country that was strategically very important. It was the place where many people presumed al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden were based. It had a military ruler.
But beyond that, I didn’t arrive with a whole lot of preconceived notions about the place, or, indeed about its history. And I remember for the first couple of years and there’s a little bit of this in the book, I wasn’t hugely impressed by Islamabad. I arrived in the middle of the summer, it was incredibly hot. I found it to be not very dynamic at all. And in fact, the whole setup at that particular time, was a little bit stagnant.
It was really a midpoint in the Musharraf years. He was very much in control. He was doing a strategic dance with the Americans. The country was relatively calm in comparison to what would follow just a number of years later. And it was a relatively quiet posting for a lot of foreign correspondents. They were much more intrigued by what was happening across the border in Afghanistan.
And so, that was my introduction to Pakistan. After a while, I discovered that this was actually a far more interesting country than I had realised. And I really started to get around. I started to meet people, and I discovered a lot of things that I found absolutely fascinating. And then three years in came the protests against Pervez Musharraf in March of 2007, which kind of came out of nowhere.
There was this showdown between Musharraf and the Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, and that was the starting gun for just an incredible burst of events that followed one after the other: the protests against Musharraf, the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the departure of Musharraf, the Red Mosque siege, the start of Taliban insurgency, then in 2011, the killing of Osama Bin Laden.
Pakistan pitches into this incredibly turbulent, combustible period. And in the book, that’s the period that I focus my narrative on and the idea was to take nine people I knew, or I’d met or done reports on during that period, and to use their lives as a way of giving a sense of things, of the huge drama of what unfolded.
But also to use that to speak to the broader themes about Pakistan, which I really started to think about towards the end of my stay there. These problems and issues that kept recurring about identity and religion, and power politics, and who was really in charge. These are evergreen issues that have dogged Pakistan for decades and decades, since Partition and 1947. But it seemed to me many of these crises had come together in a perfect storm during that period.
So after I left, I felt that really this was a great opportunity to take all of that, and to use it to tell a great story. But also to tell a story in a way that hopefully will have a timeless quality, and would hopefully be useful to someone who’s interested in Pakistan, not just today, but also maybe five or 10, or even more years in the future. That was my goal.
So much of the book covers so evocatively how violent that period was that I wondered if you were worried that it might not accurately represent the more ordinary parts of your nine years in the country. Is that something you thought about?
That’s certainly a complaint. A lot of Pakistanis at the time when I was in the country would point to the other Pakistan. They would point to the fact that their lived reality, especially if you are a relatively well-off person, was very different from the headline news you saw about Pakistan in the international press. I was certainly sensitive to that idea when I was there, and I’m still sensitive to it.
At the same time, you can’t ignore the things that were going on during that period and their importance. In the book, I hoped I would find a way to explain, to give a sense of the drama of those moments. And don’t forget that, again, talking about Islamabad, it was a very sleepy place when I arrived there in 2004. But by 2008, I mean, there were bombs going off in Islamabad at a terrifying frequency. And several of those bombs went off in close proximity even to where I lived, within, gosh, a couple of miles radius of my house.
There was a bombing of the Danish Embassy, of a large UN Office, a bombing at a court complex, there was a bombing outside an Air Force Base. And then there was the bombing of the Marriott Hotel, which was really quite a traumatic event. Because for many of us who lived in Islamabad, the Marriott was this hotel where we conducted a lot of our lives. We went to meet contacts there, I used to go for a meal there, to get my haircut there, I would attend the weddings of people I knew there
And then one day in 2008, the hotel was absolutely blitzed by this huge bomb. So, I definitely take anyone who would say you should be careful about portraying any country through acts of violence. I’m definitely sensitive to that idea. But the period that I’m looking in was actually an especially violent period in the history of Pakistan, and it was important enough not to shirk that either.
Was it personally difficult, that violent period? Did you have to make a decision to stay as it got more violent?
No, I never thought about leaving.
I was so caught up in the work. That was never really something I thought about. I was not married when I was in Pakistan, so it wasn’t difficult for me to make that decision. But for other people, it definitely was.
There were periods where diplomats who were posted to Pakistan were evacuated for short periods on security ground. Or rather, their families at least were evacuated. But I can’t think it was ever a moment where I thought, gosh, I’m gonna, I’m gonna get out of here.
In India and even in the West, people sometimes think of Pakistan as this unchanging place where the Army’s massive role in the country remains no matter what else is going on. How did you see that?
I do see that view coming from India, and that’s not quite right. When I was there, in particular, it was a really extreme roller coaster, because you went from a period of absolute military control under Musharraf to at least theoretically, full civilian control. And well, under President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani and later under Nawaz Sharif, I think the answer is that neither were periods of absolute army or civilian control.
That in a way that is the enduring truth about Pakistan. Even in times when the military has appeared to be absolutely in control, they do require quite a large degree of support from civilian actors to maintain their legitimacy.
We saw that under Musharraf with the kind of political satraps that he recruited to his cause, to his party, he was very keen to maintain some veneer of what he called controlled democracy. And by the same token, when you get to periods of civilian rule, you see that the military is always in the background, always exerting control, particularly over the big foreign policy and security issues: India, Afghanistan, America, nuclear weapons.
And when you see friction inside the corridors of power in Pakistan, it’s often over control of those issues. When you compare the current government, under Imran Khan, with previous administrations, particularly after 2008, you can see a lot of the friction that came then is no longer present now, because Imran Khan has for all intents and purposes surrendered control of a lot of these big policy issues.
And so he’s largely left in control of governance issues and the economy. But security issues, and indeed even issues to do with media freedom are now largely controlled by the military in Pakistan. But, in the period post 2008, you saw a contestation for control of some of these issues between civilian and military leaders, and that led to a lot of friction.
Did you know what you were getting into as a journalist about to work in a place where the intelligence agency, the ISI, would be paying very close attention to you?
I was based in Kenya, and I had covered many countries – a lot of them conflict-ridden countries and places with wars and instability and so on. But I don’t think I’d ever lived for a sustained period like that in a country where the military or certainly an intelligence service was quite so strong. But I will say that having lived in Pakistan, and then moving to Egypt where I’m based now, I think it was a really good grounding for this kind of situation.
To be honest, again, things changed while I was there. In the beginning, I was really struck, actually, by how much freedom we had to report pretty much what we wanted to and, with some exceptions, to travel around the country pretty freely as well. I mean, there were places like Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, and part of the tribal belt that were out of bounds for foreign journalists, even then, or at least you had to get permission to visit those places.
But you know, there were large swathes of the rest of the country, including rural villages, and where you can pretty much go at the drop of a hat. And that was actually one of the great joys of being there was just getting around the country, getting access.
One was aware that your phone would probably be tapped. If you went to visit, for instance, Indian colleagues, they complained about being followed. But honestly, a lot of the time, I kind of just went about my business. I think one of the great strengths of Pakistan and one of the really fascinating things is just like India, it’s such a large, diverse country.
And, while the ISI and the military have very tight control over certain things, and they are very good at doing certain things, there’s a lot of things that they do not have tight control over. And there’s a lot of things, frankly, that they’re not great at controlling either. And so within that space, there was quite a lot of room for someone like me, and that was part of what really excited me about being there.
As I explained in the book, I kept meeting people who were willing to give me access to their lives, sometimes to an extraordinary degree. One of the people I featured in the book is this character, our Anwar Kamal Marwat, a small-time politician in what was then known as the North West Frontier Province. For whatever his own particular reasons, he was always happy for me to come and sit with him in his small town for days on.
And I met several people like that, who were not only absolutely fascinating people in themselves, but also opened the window on the world that they live in. And for a journalist, it can’t get much better than that.
Every one of those portraits is really sharp and fascinating. I wondered what some of those people, like the police officer in Karachi, were thinking when they gave you that much access
There’s a rich variety of possible answers for that. For some of these people, they had short-term goals, they want me to write a story about them, or their politics, or the issue that they were involved in or to boost their careers.
But I found that in Pakistan, people, once you show that you’re actually genuinely interested, and that you won’t do a quick hit or take advantage of their openness, once they let their guard down, then it went beyond just doing an interview with them. People are willing to take you for a meal, take you to their home, just drop their guard and let things out.
Part of it, especially in the early years, was that this is when the internet was not quite as ubiquitous as it is now. There just wasn’t the sense that when you turned up somewhere, that a reporter could start filing immediately. Especially the trips I did in the early years, I might go somewhere, do reporting for a week, and then come back and then eventually file a story. That buffer or distance we had in our trade at that time, I do feel that it helped to provide a certain sort of ease with your subjects. I wasn’t checking Twitter every two minutes while I was talking to Nawab Bugti. Which in retrospect is probably a great thing.
Did your time there change your idea of what a foreign correspondent is, or does?
I’ve definitely seen our profession change quite a lot since I started just over 20 years ago. And mostly it’s changing for the better. As I said, the people in the places where we report are now much more likely to know who we are, because they can Google us. They are much more likely to read the stories that we write about them. And they have far greater power to immediately respond to anything you write. And to point out inaccuracies or take issue with what you’ve done.
And for the most part, I think that has definitely done a good job of keeping foreign correspondents honest. And the other thing that I’ve seen changing over the years is that there are larger numbers of people from the countries that we are reporting on, who are now doing the reporting.
So, the New York Times, for instance – our Afghanistan bureau chief for several years, Mujeeb Mashal, is an Afghan. We’ve had other people in other bureaus who’ve come up through the ranks and gone on to become correspondents or to work in New York. I still think there’s a ways to go with that, but I think that’s an inevitable trend line.
I’m not sure that it’s going to lead to the “reporter coming from abroad” necessarily being entirely extinct. But I mean, I think we’re seeing the balance between people like me coming in from the outside to work and local reporters who are playing a major role in the reporting. And I think that’s a change for the better.
Was that a conversation that came up with journalist colleagues in Pakistan, because it also does have an English language press that could do some of that same work, maybe with not as much freedom?
Funnily enough, the conversation I often had with Pakistani colleagues, especially those who are working in the local press, was that they were often happy with the reporting we did, because it would sometimes open the door for them to talk about things that otherwise were difficult for them to bring up of their own volition.
So if it was a story about a national security issue, the local press would be under too much pressure sometimes just to start that story on their own. But if I wrote about it, well, then they would be able to write a story saying the The Guardian or The New York Times has talked about this thing about Baluchistan, for instance. And they could start the conversation or kickstart their own reporting in that respect.
I mean, that’s not to take away from the amazing reporting that lots of Pakistani journalists have done, but there were times where local reporters just felt under pressure about what they could say. And so they were happy that foreign correspondents were there to push it out.
I think that local reporters, of course, would often want to work for foreign media, if they could. And I do think that the barriers to that are dropping. But sometimes it’s not just a matter of nationality. It’s also a question of training and having the perspective to serve an outside reader.
When it came to writing the book, was is something that was particularly important to you? Did you want to nuance the outside reader’s understanding of Pakistan?
When I was there, I found myself torn between other reporters who were either incredibly critical of Pakistan and believe that the [intelligence agency] ISI was at the root of all evil. And that the military was all powerful. And that Pakistan was essentially a kind of malevolent place.
And there were other people who were overindulgent and were constantly, in my view, making excuses for the failings of the place or not being willing to call a spade a spade. When I thought about writing a book, I really wanted to write something that would strike a balance between those two extremes, and unpack the things that have mystified me about Pakistan through some great stories.
The more I thought about it, the more I found myself actually pushing back into the history and finding explanations for some of the things that I realised were rooted in as far back as pre-Partition India.
And for me, as an intellectual exercise, I thought that was fascinating. Every country, of course, is a product of its history, and many countries have unresolved histories, or even unresolved ideologies, but I think in Pakistan, those problems are often more sharply drawn. Or those problems are more severe. So, I felt that when I sat down to write the book, and to pull together the material, I found myself going in that direction, which is why I have, you know, a chapter fairly early on about Jinnah and Partition, and so on.
Because for me, I felt that was important for a reader to understand. As someone who wasn’t really steeped in the history or the lore of South Asia when I was growing up, I was really struck by what a travesty in many ways Partition had been. It has changed to some degree in recent years, I think there is a greater awareness of the history of Partition and a kind of an accounting, particularly of the British responsibility for it, for how it played out. But I was really struck when I started to read into how it was this terrible event that outside the subcontinent we treat as a footnote.
Some of the Partition history may be known to Indian readers, but what I think many will find interesting here are the portraits of how the government, the Army and even the ISI are filled with human beings – not efficient ideologues, but people prone to inefficiency, politics, corruption.
I came to the conclusion that the ISI is an intelligence service that is immensely powerful, of course, and in some respects, is very competent, and even very good at what it does. But in many other respects, it is a part of the Pakistani military and a part of Pakistani bureaucracy like any other and it is afflicted by the same weaknesses, the same bureaucracy, the same bungling, the same corruption.
I mean, I had a friend who used to tell this story about how he was in a position where the other side was taking an interest in him. They didn’t like the work he was doing. And they could not find his passport details, because his given name was quite different from the name on his passport. And he told these hilarious stories about how this officer would call him and say, “sir, really, please, we’re hoping you might help us with this, remedy this difficulty” and my friend would say “look, this is your job, I’m not going to help you to do your job, go find it on your own”, and this guy would say “my superior will be angry with me if I don’t find this out”.
You often found that on the ground the ISI is certainly omnipresent in Pakistan, but it’s not omnipotent, by any stretch of the imagination. And it has a lot of failings as well as strengths just purely in intelligence terms.
Towards the end of the book, I was approached by this guy who had worked for the ISI in Pakistan, and he wanted to talk about what he had seen. And a large part of what he wanted to talk about, at least initially, was just the office politics, and how unprofessional some of the people around him were, and the lack of discipline and he would hear things that he wasn’t supposed to hear, because people would be gossiping about it over tea.
And the whole notion of compartmentalisation between various strands of the agency was not respected. And by the same token, when I had reported on my own from places like Baluchistan, there were times when people followed me, and we managed to kind of get away from them a little bit. So it really is a mixed bag.
You were suddenly kicked out of the country in 2013, just as elections were happening in Pakistan. It must have been deeply frustrating for that to happen at such a pivotal time, and also at such short notice?
It was really hard in the beginning. We tried very hard to get back for a couple of years. I was based in London, I was meeting with Pakistani officials, the editors at the The New York Times were meeting with very senior Pakistani people up to Prime Minister Sharif in New York, when they would visit. We lobbied hard. They had written me a letter saying that I had been expelled on account of undesirable activities. And so I was saying, please just tell us what you’re referring to by that phrase, so that we can address it and hopefully move on.
And of course, they would always say, “Oh, yes, absolutely. And there must be some misunderstanding. And let us get back to you.” And it just went on like that for a couple of years I wouldn’t say it rankled as such, but I had left a large part of my life behind me. I lived there for nine years. I had a house, dogs, I had a lot of relationships with a lot of people. And I really felt kind of embedded in the country.
So it was difficult to be yanked out of that so violently. I would love to be able to go back even not necessarily to do journalism, but just to visit friends. But it seems that’s not possible. Once you get put on the blacklist, it’s my understanding that it’s quite hard to get off it. And I haven’t tried in a few years, and I’m not sure what this book is going to do for my chances. if there was an opportunity to go back, I’d be back in a heartbeat.
After covering it from the UK for a few years, you moved to Egypt, and now you’re going to become the NYT’s Chief Africa Correspondent. What was it like covering and observing Pakistan from afar?
I’ve always kept a close eye on Pakistan, and I’ve followed the country’s progress. The one thing that strikes you, when you actually step out of the cauldron is you get a new perspective on what’s really important. And you understand that there are some kind of broader trend lines about the country that are very striking.
You realise there are some things that just seem to be a soap opera that is running on a repeat loop. Particularly things like accusations of corruption and so on that are still going on at the moment against Nawaz Sharif. You realise that this issue of corruption is one that some foreign reporters and writers really put a lot of stress on. But it always seemed to me that corruption in Pakistan and in other countries is really a tool that is used to prosecute political differences as much as anything else.
That’s not to say, of course, that corruption does not exist, or that some of the really egregious cases that politicians and leaders are accused of are not real. But for corruption prosecutions to be meaningful, they have to be evenly applied across the board. And if they’re not, then corruption investigations become an exercise in politically eliminating the opposition rather than a true search for accountability.
And you see that still going on now in Pakistan. And what’s a little dismal, watching it from the outside, is that I see that the political conversation and conversation in Pakistan is so consumed by this back and forth about corruption and riches or obsession about how much someone’s shoes cost or whatever. And sometimes, I feel that it misses the forest for the trees.
Having spent nine years there and left, do you now find yourself correcting misconceptions about the way people – even experts and scholars – see Pakistan?
I think for foreigners in the post 9/11 period, there was a tendency to view Pakistan exclusively through a national security prism. And I think that sometimes provided for very impoverished policymaking, where foreign countries, for instance, supported Pervez Musharraf, just as they had supported General Zia for their own narrow perceived national security interest.
And I think in the medium term that has been a destabilising dynamic for Pakistan. It has led to bad decisions, and it has not helped the cause of good governance in the country. That’s not to excuse the sometimes gross failings and corruption of civilian leaders. And they certainly have been terrible. But, you know, in Pakistan, there is bad politics and fascinating politics, but sometimes very dispiriting politics in a kind of narrow sense.
But, there are also bigger, wider forces at play about the balance of power within the country and about the country, kind of having an opportunity or having the space to solidify its own identity as a country that is formally titled an Islamic Republic, but has large minorities, and in reality actually sees itself as a much more pluralistic place.
I think for a lot of Pakistanis anyway, they do, but that view is under threat from really regressive forces that are always looking for an opportunity to seize space, whether it’s through blasphemy, whether it’s through the issue of militant jihad, whether it’s sometimes just through conventional politics, and there is this battle for the soul of Pakistan that’s always ongoing.
As you were putting the book together, did something surprise you that you hadn’t expected to come across?
Apart from the historical perspective that I spoke about, I think what really struck me when I did decide on the approach of choosing to tell this story through nine people – because initially, my idea was to tell the story thematically and then I changed course, abruptly and went down this other route – it was almost accidental: I realised, that almost all of my nine people die in the end.
Now a couple of them died of natural causes. But many of them died violently. And, in a way a little bit like how you get PTSD, you don’t realise what a turbulent period you went through until you step out of it. And you can look back on it with a little bit of hindsight.
And the other thing, I suppose, that struck me was that the period when I was there was really dominated by the Taliban insurgency, and the threat this posed to the country. There was no doubt this was a very real threat that led to a conflict in which many, many thousands of people died.
But it also struck me, as I was pulling the book together, that some of these other issues like the conflict in Balochistan and what that tells you about Pakistan – even though it is not militarily a significant threat to the army, it’s a very scrappy insurgency, and has very limited chances of achieving its stated goals. Nonetheless, that kind of tells you something interesting about the fabric of the nation and about the political and identity problems that have plagued them for so many decades.
And even though Balochistan has receded somewhat in recent years, you see the arrival of this new Pashtun nationalist movement, the PTM which in some degree comes from a similar place. An ethnic group that feels badly treated by the Centre. It really strikes me that this is a recurring threat for Pakistani stability.
And I think it’s an issue that Pakistanis have to try and very forcefully address to stabilise the country. It’s not just about Islamic militancy. It’s also about Pakistan having having a sense of inclusivity where there are not large swathes of the population who live in outlying areas and feel a sense of alienation from domination by a Centre that is dominated by a Punjabi-dominated military.
I have to admit there was definitely a sense of trepidation getting to the end of every chapter in the book. What recommendations would you give to people who are interested in this subject?
- I loved Sanam Maher’s A Woman Like Her, on the life and tragic death of the social media star Qandeel Baloch.
- I’ve just started on Owen Bennett-Jones’s The Bhutto Dynast, which promises to be fascinating.
- Imran Khan has been the subject of some fabulous profiles including Pankaj Mishra’s for theNew York Times magazine in 2012 and, more recently, Aatish Taseer’s in Vanity Fair.
- Golden oldies: Salman Rushdie’s Shame, of course, and Hanif Kureishi’s 1985 essay for Granta,“Erotic Politicians and Mullahs”, which remains remarkably relevant.
- Lastly, when I delved into the history of pre-Partition India, I loved Sheela Reddy’s Mr and Mrs Jinnah.