Nicholas Schmidle

Inside Media: The Taliban in Pakistan

June 13, 2009

Guest: Nicholas Schmidle

By Lesette R. Heath, special programs coordinator

The January night in 2008 that police in Pakistan showed up at Nicholas Schmidle’s house in Islambad waving deportation papers was a "blessing in disguise."

The incident provided the journalist with the perfect ending for his book "To Live or To Perish Forever: Two Tumultuous Years in Pakistan."

"I thought, ‘we’re getting kicked out of Pakistan,’ but now my book has a beginning, middle and ending," said Schmidle, who, along with his wife, had been in the country for 23 months.

Initially in Pakistan on a fellowship, Schmidle had parlayed his fluency in Urdu, his ability to make contacts and his love for writing into freelance assignments for Slate, The Washington Post and The New Republic.

But he felt the deportation had been in the works for awhile. Earlier, Schmidle had profiled the new generation of the Taliban for The New York Times Magazine and had witnessed the Taliban conducting a public lashing. He thought to himself ‘I’m not supposed to be watching this.’"

After the story was published, the police came knocking. Schmidle returned to the region after the Pakistan Peoples Party came to power.

"They had been working on my cause as I was getting kicked out. I told them that ‘you guys used me as an example to show how depraved the Musharraf government was, so now I want to come back,’" he said.

Midway through his second trip, Schmidle was more or less chased out.

"I started reading stories in the local press about my own kidnapping," he explained. "That’s when you say ‘time out. I’m going to go ahead and leave.’"

While reporting from Pakistan, Schmidle often used a fixer or translator. He also dyed his blond hair and wore native clothes to blend in more.

"If I was walking down the street and someone was on the other side, he wouldn’t be able to immediately look at me and say that person’s not from here. That helped defray a little bit of suspicion," he said.

Schmidle developed a long relationship with the late pro-Taliban leader Abdul Rashid Ghazi. Schmidle called the Taliban "their own worst enemy" asking, "How do you confine them?"

"There is no simple answer except to realize that it can’t be done with military force alone. The culture of these areas is very focused on hospitality, revenge and honor, so you kill one person and you immediately create ten more enemies," he said.

Schmidle signed copies of his book after the program.

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