Book Review: To Live or to Perish Forever by Nicholas Schmidle

Inherent in any book about current events or current affairs is the problem of lag time, the time from experiencing the events to writing about them to the book actually ending up in stores. Some of that can be alleviated by selling stories of the events to magazines or newspaper as or shortly after they occur. That was an approach Nicholas Schmidle, author of To Live or to Perish Forever: Two Tumultuous Years in Pakistan, used but it showed another hazard when you’re writing about current foreign affairs. It may cause you to be forced from the country.

That’s actually where Schmidle starts his tale of the two years he spent immersing himself in Pakistan. Beginning in February 2006, Schmidle traveled throughout the country, learning Urdu and working to meet and interview radical Islamists and Taliban members and supporters. In January 2008, though, the police came to his home three times one day, the last time telling him his and his wife’s visas were revoked and they were to be taken to the airport immediately. A telephone call to a relatively well-placed acquaintance bought a brief delay but he also learned the government was upset about where he’d traveled, who he’d visited and some of his reporting. Schmidle bought the first two available seats on the next flight out.

To Live or to Perish Forever not only takes us with Schmidle into areas of internal strife and to meet the Taliban and its supporters, it gives a first hand recounting of the events that led to President Pervez Musharraf ‘s declaration of emergency rule in November 2007 and the protests and street battles that ultimately led to his impeachment and resignation in August 2008. (By coincidence, Schmidle briefly returned to Pakistan and was there when Musharraf resigned.) He became friends with Abdul Rashid Ghazi, the radical cleric who controlled the Red Mosque in Islamabad, and gives a firsthand account of the events leading to that and the military eventually storming the mosque. His efforts also pay some dividends in defeating the time lag element. Among the places he explored was the Swat area in northwestern Pakistan, the site of the Pakistani’s government’s recent offensive against Taliban control.

Taking its title from a famous 1933 pamphlet that first suggested the name “Pakistan,” the book illustrates much of the contrast in modern Pakistan today. In fact, even Schmidle being in Pakistan seems somewhat incongruous. While Schmidle was visiting northwestern Pakistan and other areas with a strong radical presence, his father was a Marine Corps general and his brother, a Marine lieutenant, was serving in Anbar Province in Iraq. But as To Live or to Perish Forever demonstrates, Pakistan itself is a world of contrasts.

One of the anomalies may just be the alliance between the U.S. and Pakistan. Schmidle notes that the Taliban operated freely in Pakistan because “everyone, everywhere in Pakistan, seemed to be offering [them] some help.” As one Pakistani journalist told him, “Ninety-nine point ninety-nine percent of Pakistanis, from their heart of hearts, are happy to see the Taliban creating problems for the Americans in Afghanistan and for Musharraf” in northwest Pakistan. But it is “the idea of the Taliban,” not the men with turbans and guns that infatuates them. “One hundred percent of the people don’t want the Taliban in Islamabad, Rawalpindi of even Karachi,” the country’s capital, military center and largest city, respectively, said the same journalist.

Schmidle, in fact, often encounters this type of antithesis firsthand. Perhaps the prime example is when he asked the leader of one of the two major pro-Taliban factions seeking to implement sharia law in the Swat Valley if he wanted to accompany Schmidle to see the leader of the other faction. “No way,” the faction leader said. “Those people are extremists.”

Schmidle’s efforts to visit and even attempt to understand the extremists as well as more unaligned and common Pakistanis helps make To Live or to Perish Forever useful for a Western reader. Yet there is an another aspect that makes it even more valuable. Despite being an American and offering articles to Western publications, Schmidle wanted to learn about all of Pakistan. That desire results in the reader also getting a broader and more accurate picture of the country and all its contrasts. To Live or to Perish Forever is not a Western-centric look but a reflection of actual immersion in Pakistani culture and politics. As a result, we see other fault lines in Pakistani society, as well as efforts to remedy those problems. We learn of different cultural and historical circumstances that have given rise to conflicts between regional and ethnic groups. These conflicts have not only led to struggles between the government and the regions for the exercise of authority but can also be reflected in how the country’s economic resources and development funds are allocated and spent.

As a result, while U.S. readers may be interested in Pakistan because of recent events, Schmidle helps give them a more authentic and discriminating look inside the country as a whole. The value of such an approach far outweighs any inherent problems in current affairs books, making To Live or to Perish Forever both timely and timeless.

It seemed more likely that Pakistan would continue to exist in a perpetual state of frenzied dysfunction: alive, but always appearing to be on the verge of perishing.

Nicholas Schmidle, To Live or to Perish Forever

1 comment to Book Review: To Live or to Perish Forever by Nicholas Schmidle

  • Reading your review via the World Citizen Challenge. I’m really surprised by the claim that Pakistanis are actually supporting the Taliban, even if it is with conflicted feelings. This book must have been an interesting read!