The Friday Interview: Steve Inskeep on the Chaos, Challenge, and Promise of Pakistan

NPR's Steve Inskeep has written a fascinating and analytically acute book about the Pakistani mega-city of Karachi. "Instant City" (the title is a reference to Karachi's quick and steroidal growth) takes its readers deep inside an ordinarily-impenetrable city. Inskeep is a brave reporter for working in such a combustible place. His story is not merely about the manifold woes of a single city, or a single country, but about the terrific challenges facing the developing world from rapid population growth, urbanization, sectarianism and corruption. All of this is embedded in a fast-moving narrative (a catastrophic bombing of a Shi'a religious commemoration sets the book in motion). Readers of Goldblog know that its proprietor considers Pakistan to be America's second-biggest foreign policy challenge (after the country just to its west), and Inskeep does a very good job of making the place understandable. What follows is an edited transcript of my interview with him:

Jeffrey Goldberg: I'm sometimes amazed that you turn on a faucet and water comes out in a developing world mega-city. Karachi comes to mind, Cairo comes to mind. We only hear about Karachi when it's dysfunctional. But what keeps it working to the extent it works?

Steve Inskeep: The answer, is it's a massive improvisation. You mentioned water: There's not a lot of running water in neighborhoods that probably house millions of people. You have water delivered by water trucks, you have people steal water, liberate water, the same way they steal electricity. It's a city that has totally outgrown the infrastructure in way that Cairo has, maybe even to a greater degree, because Karachi was a smaller city to begin with.

JG: Why is the government unable to provide basic resources in a reliable way?

SI: You have a country that is focused on external threats. The elites are focused on external threats. They don't necessarily have the resources to deal with internal problems, and with a government that keeps turning over between civilian and military leadership, they don't have the head space or the planning space or the money or the attention span to deal with basic problems. What people do is they improvise their way through the day, improvise their way through their lives. They will dig their own sewers if they don't have them. They will hook up to the nearest power line. Maybe they would pay the utility, but it's not going to get to them anytime soon. This is the sort of thing that gets people through the day, and it makes them feel as if the city isn't going to completely implode.
JG: The Shi'a-Sunni split in its most violent manifestation is the launching-point for your book. Could Karachi ever devolve into a Sarajevo?

SI: You have the religious division, the ethnic division, which to some degree have become geographic divisions. People will tell you there were more ethnically-mixed neighborhoods then than there are now. That does raise the possibility of some kind of warfare of the kind you are describing. And you have all of these tensions that grow out of the way the country was formed in the beginning, unresolved questions about how the country is supposed to be organized, how it's supposed to be run, and in an intense city like Karachi these things are exacerbated by all the things you have reported on. You have elites who are focused on external threats, and they don't have time for internal threats. When you have elites who are devoting their resources to nuclear weapons, they don't have the resources to deal with infrastructure.

JG: Imagine if the nuclear program was devoted to building nuclear-powered desalinization plants.

SI: Right, if they had nuclear power plants generating electricity that would be a huge change for the country. And on top of that - and this gets to the divides in society - when you have a government using extremism as an instrument of foreign policy, that is friendly to any number of Islamist groups, you end up having massive side effects of the sort that are visible on the streets of Karachi. Pakistan is a country, long-time residents say, and history will bear this out, that has always had a strand of religious intolerance, but it was a more tolerant place, a more cosmopolitan place, than it was 30 or 40 or 50 years ago. It's more intolerant now.
JG: One of the most interesting aspects of your book is your exploration of the societal tensions caused by real estate competition and acquisition of land. It's a common perception that all tension is religious or ethnic in origin.

SI: People are fighting more about power, money and land than necessarily fighting over religious ideology.
JG: But religious differences will be employed to advance these arguments?

SI: It may ostensibly be about that, but it's really about power. In a growing city like this one, the most obvious expression of power is land. And in fact those other issues can get tied up with your neighborhood, your own home. We attach some of our identity to the property we may own or the neighborhood in which we live, and in who is moving in and who is moving out. And you have this city where there are these same kind of anxieties and issues but they play out in an atmosphere in which there is very little law and order, and many parts of the city have no law and order at all. And so the conflicts that would bedevil any city to a degree become massive and destabilizing.

JG: What percentage of residents of Karachi pay their taxes?

SI: hardly anybody in Pakistan is paying taxes. There is a long tradition in Pakistan of not paying your taxes.
JG: It is amazing that you have a country that has a huge domestic spying apparatus, but that the government is basically non-existent in the area of tax collection.

SI: The military, like the rest of the establishment in Pakistan, has been organized to serve the elites. The elites are the ones with money and they don't necessarily want to pay their taxes. We assume that the military and the ISI have this immense apparatus that can track down people in any number of ways, but somehow the government can't track down people, rich people, who have never paid a dime in taxes.
JG: In 1947, independence comes to the subcontinent. Two countries are formed - one is today the world's largest democracy, a fast-growing economy, an open society. The other is Pakistan. They are both born out of the same crisis and they are linguistically and ethnically similar, even religiously similar in one way - there are 200 million Muslims in India. Why is one part of this split dysfunctional?

SI:  One thought is obvious and noted by many people. Pakistan has not managed to have a functioning democracy during all those 60-plus years. They've had a series of military coups. And when you look at their history, it's a history of constantly starting over.  Every military ruler comes in and writes a new constitution or messes with the old one. Then every time a military ruler is pushed out they have to fix the constitution or write another one. So in any of these periods, the country is only four or five years old. India has its own severe problems of governance and even states of emergency, but it has not had a military coup, so there's been the opportunity for some evolution.

JG: Why is Pakistan more prone to coups?

SI: There are a number of reasons for that. First, Pakistan has never had an administrative structure as the Indians did. We can talk about simple mechanical things like the fact that the Indians inherited a capital that already had a bureaucracy. The Pakistanis inherited some people but they didn't have a capital or a bureaucracy. They just had to make it up. The Indians had a leader who took firm control and maintained control until his death 17 years later. In Pakistan, you had a leader who was dying at the moment of independence, and barely lived a year. There are other factors. India is a more diverse society, there are more centers of power, this made it harder for any one person or organization to dominate the country. Pakistan is more diverse than it seems but there is still a relatively small elite and a relative dearth of strong institutions and power centers. It's been easier for one institution to dominate, an institution that has been supported by the United States in a massive way since the 1950s.

There's a scene in the book, in 1957, the U.S. is aiding Pakistan to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars in 1950s dollars, and you had Eisenhower in a meeting complaining that we're supporting the military to the exclusion of everything else, and it's the worst possible policy they could have, and he can't think of anything better to do.
JG: In this partnership, the Pakistanis aren't the only ones to make the same mistakes over and over again. Here's another image from the book that stayed with me: Nighttime golf at the military's golf course, acres of watered grass. Talk about the symbolism.

SI: This is one of the things that as a journalist, not as a citizen but as a journalist, you love about this story, because you have these abstract notions of power made very concrete. When you look at the real estate, it becomes abundantly clear to you that one institution in the country has first call on the best resources and it is obvious what this means for everybody else. This is not to say that Pakistan shouldn't have an army or doesn't need an army or that they don't live in a dangerous neighborhood, but you have this institution that will steer things in its own direction and do real estate development in a certain way to benefit certain classes of people. And you realize it's not just the military. There are is a lot of money being made there, even as the people on the bottom are straining.

JG: What was your daily life like in Karachi? This is the city in which Danny Pearl was murdered, after all.

SI: I think I behaved in the way reporters behave in dangerous areas. You try to sleep someplace secure. You get up in the morning, you try to make sure you know where you're going, you try to go see the people you're going to see, and you don't linger too long if it's a bad neighborhood, and you keep a low profile. You rely on this, plus the fact that anywhere you go most people are fine, most people are welcoming and in fact eager to tell their story to an American. There are some more extreme elements in Karachi, and because I know what happened to Danny Pearl, you think a little bit more about whether someone knows where you are, are you sure of your contacts, and you take extra care. But even in this situation, I was a little surprised at the more extreme groups. They would want to lecture me about the United States, but once you got there it didn't feel like a terribly hazardous encounter.

JG: Do you think the level of anti-Americanism has gone up over time, or has it stayed constant?

SI: I think in the last couple of years something is shifting, just because the country has been in this constant and increasing state of crisis. I think there was a feeling three or four years ago that the situation was going to improve, or that the military was on its way out. No one saw the financial crisis on the horizon or any of the other things that happened, or even the escalation of the war in Afghanistan. As the war has intensified, frustration in Pakistan has risen as well, because the media will put out a story that for one reason or another, the United States is arranging bombings inside Pakistan, or that the United States is manipulating the Taliban in some way.  There is a vast conspiracy theory that the U.S. is trying to destabilize the country in order to have an excuse to get its hands on the nuclear weapons, as you know. This is a constant factor in people's thinking, especially in the military. When I interviewed people about the bombing that is at the center of my book, I ran across people who said that the Americans were responsible for it.  These are victims who would seemingly have a motivation to try to understand who was really responsible, so that's awful.

I would say at the same time, on an individual level, and I bet you've had the same experience, people are quite welcoming, there's this great culture of hospitality, and you lean on this culture of hospitality. They were especially eager to tell their stories to Americans, in part because there are an incredible number of connections between Pakistan and the United States, because there are so many expatriates here.
JG: One of the odd things about Pakistan is that when the electricity goes out, people often just shrug and self self-deprecatingly, 'Pakistan.' There's a kind of inferiority complex at work, it seems.

SI: Absolutely. I don't want to psychoanalyze where it comes from, but people are a little embarrassed by the state of their country. They'll describe their own government as shameful, which doesn't mean they wouldn't support their government in some kind of conflict, but they think they know the score. They're aware of the scale of corruption in the country. Most of all, a lot of people are old enough to remember a time when things didn't seem so chaotic.  I'm not offering my own theory here, but there is a feeling among some people that the culture goes out of its way to make things more difficult than they should be.
JG: But if Karachi still works at all, does it mean that perhaps Pakistan can work? Is there anything you saw in the culture that made you think, this place could ultimately work?

SI: There are a lot of reasons I keep thinking that things can't get much worse in this country, and then they get worse. But Karachiites in particular see themselves as survivors, getting through to the next day. I think about the cover of my book, of burning buses, and people on motorcycles riding by. It's a great picture. I didn't take it or pick it. But I looked at it and I thought, wow, what a great photo. I was concerned that people in the city itself would be deeply offended, here I am representing their city with a burning bus. And maybe somebody is offended, but Pakistanis I've talked to about the cover photo have loved it, and say it represents their country and their city. There are constant catastrophes going on, but the guys on the motorbike are going on with their business. And so there is some reason to hope, simply because people have worked out ways to keep it going.