At college in England 40 years ago, my best pal was Pakistani, a well-born boy from Lahore. In a pub one night, he told me that he was sorry his nation had ever been created. The comment startled me (an Indian) and came to life again as I read Declan Walsh’s “The Nine Lives of Pakistan,” an enthralling account of Mr. Walsh’s near-decade as a correspondent in that land, first for the Guardian and, latterly, for the New York Times. Pakistan, he writes, is the only country “where some of its own citizens quietly regretted it had ever come into being.”
Pakistan was created in 1947 as a homeland for the Muslims of Hindu-majority India—“carved from the flanks of British India,” as Mr. Walsh puts it. Its “Great Leader” (“Quaid-e-Azam” in Urdu) was Muhammad Ali Jinnah, an unlikely agitator for a confessional Muslim state. A worldly lawyer who drank alcohol and married outside his faith, he was, Mr. Walsh tells us, “purposefully vague about his beliefs” for much of his life. In a poignant passage, Mr. Walsh parses a photograph of Jinnah taken in September 1947, a month after Pakistan was born: In it, he wears “the gaze of a man who gambled at the table of history, won big—and now wonders whether he won more than he bargained for.”
The subtitle of Mr. Walsh’s book is “Dispatches From a Precarious State,” and he opens his account on his last night in Pakistan, in May 2013. He had been given 72 hours to leave, his visa canceled by the notorious Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) for his pursuit (it was alleged) of “undesirable activities.” It was a cruel moment for a reporter to have to depart: There was an election the next day—the first time in which a civilian Pakistani government would complete its term and hand over power to another.
This election, Mr. Walsh writes, was “stupendously good news” in Pakistan, a country of “hidden delights [and] endearing absurdities” that had endured the rule of military dictators for a hefty portion of its existence. That democracy appeared to be holding fast against daunting odds was “a blast of sweet relief to weary Pakistanis.” Times were ugly: The Taliban had killed thousands of citizens in the preceding years—150 in a single bombing alone—and the former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, had been assassinated. Malala Yousafzai, a teenage activist for girls’ education, had been shot in the head.
The Nine Lives of Pakistan
By Declan Walsh
Norton, 337 pages, $30
In the crowning episode of national infamy, Osama bin Laden was killed in 2011 in a raid by U.S. Navy SEALs on his compound, located right next to Pakistan’s military academy. The Pakistani government wasn’t told of the raid in advance. The U.S. and Pakistan, Mr. Walsh writes, had been “feuding and falling in love for decades” and were locked in “the worst kind of forced marriage—a product of shared interests rather than values, devoid of genuine affection.” The marriage was happiest in the last years of the Cold War, during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, when Pakistan served as a conduit to the Afghan mujahedeen. After the killing of bin Laden, the relationship was a wreck.
Although Mr. Walsh acknowledges the big strategic questions, there isn’t a wonky paragraph in 300 pages. Instead he portrays Pakistan through the stories of nine emblematic people (the “nine lives” of his title). A 10th life—Mr. Walsh’s own—is the thread that ties this cast together.
His characters include a disenchanted ISI spook who quits his job and flees to Europe, living in the fearful shadows of anonymity; the police chief of Pakistan’s biggest city (“Karachi’s Dirty Harry”), whose mansion, built with money beyond the means of a humdrum cop, was destroyed by a suicide-bomber; and the sybaritic governor of Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province, gunned down by a soldier from his own security detail for daring to speak out for a Christian woman on death row for blasphemy. (After emptying his magazine into the man he was paid to protect, the much-feted killer announced: “I am a slave to my prophet.”) There is also an account, frequently droll, of a glad-handing Pashtun politician, as well as a hair-raising one of a former ISI officer who came to be held hostage—and then murdered—by the very Taliban factions he’d helped to create.
The two most moving of Mr. Walsh’s portraits offer a window on Pakistan’s contrasts. The first is of Abdul Rashid Ghazi, a leader at the Red Mosque—an extremist seminary in Islamabad from which vigilante “vice and virtue” squads ventured forth in the first half of 2007 into the Pakistani capital, burning Bollywood DVDs and, on one occasion, abducting six Chinese masseuses whom they accused of being prostitutes. (The incident caused such diplomatic friction that even China’s president, Hu Jintao, was briefed on the matter.) Mr. Walsh describes his conversations with Ghazi—who had attended a secular university and seemed a somewhat reluctant fundamentalist—and declares that he rather liked him, “jihadi puffery aside.” Ghazi died when the Pakistani army stormed the Red Mosque in July 2007, in “a Waco-style siege in the heart of sleepy Islamabad.”
The other affecting portrait is of a more conventionally attractive person. Asma Jahangir, “a cast-iron idealist,” was only 19 when she succeeded in freeing her father from military detention. With her sister, she founded Pakistan’s first all-female law firm and challenged Sharia laws imposed by Zia-ul-Haq, Pakistan’s dictator for much of the 1980s. She even called the country’s generals “useless duffers” on television.
Mr. Walsh writes that Jahangir—who died of a heart attack in 2018, at 66—“didn’t just stand on her principles, she waved them from the barricades.” She defended Christians accused of blasphemy, rape victims whose testimony in court was worth half that of a man’s, even radical Islamists who had been tortured. “She embraced the untouchable,” writes Mr. Walsh, “and advocated the unthinkable.” In Pakistan, there is no braver feat.
Mr. Varadarajan, a Journal contributor, is a fellow at New York University Law School’s Classical Liberal Institute.