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To Live or to Perish Forever, by Nicholas Schmidle; Seeds of Terror, by Gretchen Peters

Reviewed here: To Live or to Perish Forever: Two Tumultuous Years in Pakistan, by Nicholas Schmidle Seeds of Terror: How Heroin Is Bankrolling the Taliban and al-Qaeda, by Gretchen Peters

Pakistan is in flames. The Pakistan neo-Taliban insurgency has taken over large portions of Swat, the once idyllic Switzerland of Pakistan where Lollywood (the Pakistani Bollywood) movies were once filmed. The Pakistan army has finally fought back, and 2.4 million refugees from Swat have fled the fighting and now constitute the largest number of internally displaced people in the country. That is in addition to 1.8 million Afghan refugees residing in Pakistan.

Portions of the North West Frontier Province and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) bordering Afghanistan are effectively Taliban-controlled. While the world's attention was turned to Iraq and then Afghanistan, Pakistan slipped into the abyss of a civil war with a Taliban and jihadi insurgency.

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  • To Live or to Perish Forever: Two Tumultuous Years in Pakistan, by Nicholas Schmidle, Henry Holt, 254 pages, $28

Nicholas Schmidle, an enterprising young U.S. journalist, has had an excellent adventure. He spent two tumultuous years in Pakistan and managed to visit trouble spots before they became headline news: jihadis ensconced in the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) in Islamabad, Taliban fighters overrunning Swat and North Waziristan, ethnic conflict between Pashtuns and mohajirs (immigrants from India) in Karachi, and a secular nationalist separatist movement in Baluchistan. His reportage offers genuine insight into the travails of a nation ravaged by violence and political instability. Unusually, he develops an evident fondness for the people he meets and befriends. That quintessentially American trait of the innocent abroad allows him to delve into the existential challenges confronting Pakistan today.

While Schmidle was residing in the Pakistani capital, several thousand young men and women based at the Red Mosque launched a Taliban-like campaign in January, 2007. They threatened owners of DVD and CD stores for selling "vulgar videos," intimidated women and contributed to an aura of fear and instability.

Unlike a typical mosque, this one was stacked with grenade launchers, Kalashnikovs and DVD-burning facilities for churning out propaganda videos. Many of the students at the Lal Masjid were from the tribal areas. Militants from the A-list of Pakistani jihadi paramilitary groups also lived in the mosque.

The Lal Masjid is fronted by Abdul Rashid Ghazi, who has professed his sympathy for Osama bin Laden, Mullah Omar and the Taliban. Schmidle desperately wishes to interview Ghazi. However, introductions are required. Khalid Khawaja, a former Pakistani military intelligence operative with self-professed ties to bin Laden, makes the introduction. Schmidle is a bit nervous (Khawaja made similar introductions for Daniel Pearl) and tells his new American bride that if he doesn't return, send out the posse. In one almost-amusing encounter with a militant group, he asks whether he should identify himself as a Canadian. His handler replies, "It doesn't matter. To these guys, you are all infidels."

Ghazi is a charismatic leader appealing to the young and disenfranchised whose marginalization fuels their radicalization. He is articulate, speaks English fluently and compares himself to Rudolph Giuliani, wishing to clean up his city. Schmidle views him as iconic of the seismic shift to an Islamism that is anti-democratic and impatient for radical change.

In July, 2007, the army launched an assault against the Lal Masjid. Hundreds of commandos assaulted the building and credible estimates were that several hundred died. Schmidle suggests that the indiscriminate action breathed new life into the jihadis , who chanted, "The blood of our martyrs will not go to waste" and "Ghazi! Ghazi! From your blood the revolution will come!" Schmidle whimsically writes about Ghazi in a Washington Post op-ed article, My Buddy, the Jihadi. His family is horrified (father and brother are both Marines).

In October, 2007, Schmidle decides to visit Swat, where the Taliban had effectively taken control of Mingora, the provincial capital. Our enterprising journalist dyes his blond hair dark and dons a scarf. His guide contacts the local Taliban commander for safe passage. Both guide and journalist are petrified when they encounter Taliban fighters with rocket launchers and Kalashnikovs and who appear like "Viking raiders." There was no discernible military or government presence that could resist the militants barely four hours from Islamabad.

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With the Taliban takeover, women were banned from public life and could no longer shop in the markets. Girls' schools were also bombed. One interlocutor issues a plaintive plea: "There's no government here any more. They haven't met in three months." The Taliban's presence in Swat dates to 1994, when remnants of anti-Soviet jihadis seized the airport near Mingora. In 2001, the TNSM (Movement for the enforcement of Sharia law) fought the Americans in Afghanistan.

The author travels to Imam Dehri, a village near Mingora, where he interviews a young Taliban commander named Maulana Fazlullah, who is viewed as a linchpin in the Taliban's takeover of Swat. Fazlullah appears pleased that Schmidle knew Abdul Ghazi, and they trade pleasantries. It is Ramadan, and a Taliban host graciously asks him if he desires hashish or opium. Amusingly, the author calls the gathering of Taliban fighters in Swat Talibanapalooza.

While the Taliban fighters in Swat were ignored by Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf, the dictator did manage to suppress a secular lawyers' movement that enjoyed mass support and posed a challenge to his regime. The movement called for the rule of law and the reappointment of dozens of judges fired by Musharraf. They used tactics of Gandhian non-violent protest and captured the country's imagination. Musharraf responded by arresting Iftikhar Chaudhury, the Supreme Court chief justice, human rights advocates, journalists and activists. For their courageous efforts, Chaudhury and the lawyers' movement received the Harvard Law School Medal of Freedom (past recipients include Nelson Mandela).

Western governments silently looked on. Historically, the West has propped up a series of pliant Pakistani dictators, preferring them over democrats. Aitzaz Ahsan, the front man of the lawyers' movement, is profiled by Schmidle, and appears accepting of his fate - imminent arrest - but hopeful for the restoration of democracy and the rule of law. Ahsan is a charismatic, Cambridge-educated barrister and president of the Pakistan Supreme Court Bar Association. Urbane and articulate, he has been harshly critical of U.S. support for Musharraf and its attendant consequences in a country where anti-Americanism runs rampant through all sectors of society.

Reading Schmidle's portrait, one is struck by the multiple crises of state and society - political, military, economic - afflicting Pakistan, with no simple or quick solution. The rise of the Taliban is in part due to the inability of the state to provide basic services to its citizenry. As The New York Times recently reported, the "Taliban exploit class rifts" in Swat between wealthy landowners and landless tenants. The growing chasm between the Westernized elites that form a thin crust on top of Pakistani society (1 per cent of Pakistanis pay taxes) and the impoverished masses is the fecund environment in which militant groups flourish and thrive. Social-development indicators are grim. Only 20 per cent of people in Baluchistan have access to clean water and 15 per cent of Baluchistan's women can read.

As well, the military has consciously utilized jihadi militant groups as shock forces to fight an unconventional war against India and to keep Afghanistan at heel. The state has viewed Islamic ideology as the glue binding together the country's disparate ethnic peoples. The war in Afghanistan has spilled over into Pakistan, and India's actions in the region contribute to Pakistan's paranoia. However, all is not completely lost. Increasingly, Pakistanis have awakened to the dangers posed by the Taliban and jihadis and have massively voiced their disgust and fear.

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The Pakistani military's counterinsurgency doctrine is a virtual recipe for insurgency creation: Ignore the problem, then use overwhelming force ensuring civilian casualties, and repeat the process. One can point to Bajaur, where entire villages were flattened, causing the local populace to turn against the government.

The primary goal of an insurgency is to separate the agents of the government from the people and replace it with the insurgency's own leadership. When Schmidle travels to South Waziristan, he is told by a local journalist, Pir, a member of the Mehsud tribe, that the Taliban leaders have replaced the local tribal elders. The traditional tribal structure was first decimated during the anti-Soviet jihad , when tribal leaders were superseded by mujahedeen commanders.

More recently, hundreds of tribal elders have been slaughtered by the Taliban while the Pakistani government indifferently looked on. Pir regards the Taliban favourably, citing a personal reason. His family experienced a theft of its car along with its driver. The police were unable to respond, but the local Taliban commander was able to recover both car and driver. Pir tells Schmidle that the Taliban have lessened banditry and criminality.

  • Seeds of Terror: How Heroin Is Bankrolling the Taliban and al-Qaeda, by Gretchen Peters, Thomas Dunne Books, 320 pages, $32.95

Gretchen Peters's excellent Seeds of Terror: How Heroin is Bankrolling the Taliban and al-Qaeda explores how the opium industry fuels the Taliban, feeds systemic corruption in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and increases regional instability. The Afghan opium industry earns a half billion dollars a year. The Taliban shelters poppy producers and distributors and is now flush with opium-derived funds. Today, the Taliban is a financially self-sustaining militant jihadi movement. Her basic thesis is that Afghanistan and Pakistan cannot be fixed unless the eco-system of opium and Taliban militancy is severed.

North Atlantic Treaty Organization officials estimate that the Afghan Taliban pays its contract soldiers $150 a month, contrasted with $40 paid to a government policeman. Moreover, the narco-Islamic- jihadis corrupt local Afghan administrators and politicians, who sell entire districts to the Taliban, according to Peters. Across the border, a Pakistani customs official tells her: "The vast majority of provincial authorities are corrupted," and "smugglers connected to the highest level of the Pakistani government" receive support and safe passage.

Ironically, the smugglers whose activities bankroll the Taliban are said to like dancing and music and most "keep young boys," according to one Afghan she interviewed. Others have hosted debauched parties with Russian prostitutes on private estates. Regional drug smugglers launder their dirty money in the Karachi Stock Exchange and the United Arab Emirates.

There are some gems in the book. Peters describes "short-termers," Western diplomatic and development specialists sent in by foreign governments, who tend to bury problems on their watch rather than solve them, returning to accolades at home.

The challenges confronting Pakistan are immense and perhaps intractable. Nicholas Schmidle has written a gripping and readable contribution to understanding the embattled landscape of Pakistan. He does so with genuine empathy for the peoples of the country and intimations of the challenges that lie ahead. Gretchen Peters has penned a disturbing book and plainly states that unless the opium-smuggling industry is put out of business, the nation-building exercise in Afghanistan is destined for failure. We should heed her warnings.

Emran Qureshi is a fellow at the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School.

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