Taking office in January, Barack Obama promised a radically different vision of foreign policy from that of his predecessor. But on perhaps the most critical issue, the new king looks a lot like the old one. In Pakistan, President Obama has retained the Bush administration's targeted drone missile attacks against suspected militants and may quietly be expanding the Central Intelligence Agency's covert battle against jihadis along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
As Nicholas Schmidle, a contributor to publications including The New York Times Magazine, The New Republic and Slate, reveals in a richly reported book based on his two years traveling across Pakistan, United States policy does not change because Pakistan, sadly, does not change. Birthed in 1947 by Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the lawyer son of a rich merchant, the country remains in the grip of venal, feudal, wealthy politician-landlords like the opposition leader Nawaz Sharif and the current president, Asif Ali Zardari, for whom democracy means one vote one time, after which the victors go on to dominate indefinitely. Worse, greed and graft have led Islamabad's ruling class to ignore large portions of the population, who remain illiterate, and their incompetent governance has opened the door to Islamists' offering average Pakistanis promises that the first Mayor Daley would have recognized - safe and orderly streets - not through machine politics but through the brutal application of Shariah law.
Founded as a homeland for Muslims, Pakistan never coalesced into a nation: from Sindh to Peshawar, Schmidle uncovers a politics based on identity, rather than ideological platforms, and thus incapable of compromise. Schmidle finds that there is not one Pakistan, but that "each province" represents "its own, distinct Pakistan." In his time in the country, he sees the collapse of identity politics only once, when students organize to oust the dictator Pervez Musharraf. "For the first time in more than 20 years, students gathered for a cause . . . and not just an identity or an ideology," Schmidle writes. But when Musharraf goes, and terrorists kill the opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, the country descends into identity-first bloodletting once again.
At times, Schmidle's work, a collection of chapter-length anecdotes, coheres little better than Pakistani politics. Parts read like stand-alone articles, and Schmidle diverges into topics, like politics in Bangladesh, that stray from the narrative thrust about the long-term survival of Pakistan.
But what anecdotes. Brave enough to seek out some of the country's toughest jihadis despite the grave dangers facing American reporters in Pakistan, Schmidle has amassed a treasure chest of stories. And unlike some traveling correspondents who turn the lens inward, he never allows himself - his reactions to being dropped in the Talibanized northwest or in the middle of an urban protest march - to overshadow his Pakistani characters. Schmidle ventures into Baluchistan, a province ignored by most Western reporters, though it is the site of a bloody separatist struggle every bit as dangerous to Pakistan's unity and survival as the fight against the Taliban in the North-West Frontier. In his sharpest, most elegant portrait, he describes Abdul Rashid Ghazi, who fought to the death in the bloody siege of Islamabad's Red Mosque two years ago, not as a mere radical but as a complex, media-savvy cleric-politician capable of massaging his public image to appear both intimidating enough to draw in young jihadis and modern enough to attract Western interest.
In another timely account, Schmidle travels into the remote Swat region, crossing at one point on a zip-line tram, to meet Maulana Fazlullah, a leader of the Pakistani Taliban. Again, Schmidle presents more than the brutal jihadi of most media coverage. He encounters Fazlullah in a "bulky black turban and a goofy smile," assuring Schmidle that "you are our guests." And yet the reader cannot forget that Fazlullah is believed to have masterminded the string of murderous attacks by the Taliban in Lahore, Islamabad and other cities in recent weeks.
Unlike a more nuanced work of reporting (say, George Packer's 2005 book on Iraq, "The Assassins' Gate"), Schmidle's project leaves us with few conclusions, few ideas of how to create function out of Pakistan's chaos. In his last few pages, after his final trip to Pakistan, where he had been pursued relentlessly by the police and intelligence agents, he simply cops out. Recalling a question put to him by his grandfather - "What's wrong with that place?" - Schmidle writes, "I realized that I was no closer to offering a comprehensive answer now than I had been" at the start of the journey.
Then again, in his confusion about how to understand Pakistan, Schmidle finds himself in good company: from Truman to Obama, and from Jinnah to Zardari, no American or Pakistani president has figured out a solution in the country, either.
Joshua Kurlantzick, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, is the author of "Charm Offensive: How China's Soft Power Is Transforming the World."
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.