I recently had the pleasure of meeting Khalid Muhammad online and reviewing his novel, Agency Rules – Never an Easy Day at the Office. This is an unblinking look at the battle against insurgency in Pakistan, and Khalid narrates the tale with ‘been there done that’ authenticity. So, without further ado, let’s take a look at this upcoming indie author.
The subtitle of your novel, Never An Easy Day At The Office, seems almost cavalier when considering the tone of the novel and the subject matter. Was there a particular reason why you chose it?
Kamal, coming from a wealthy Pathan family, is looking for his identity. He finds it when he joins the Pakistan Army – he is a soldier. We see his growth through the story from soldier to precision sniper to intelligence officer and at no point does he have an easy time with it. Those who have traveled this journey will tell you that it’s never easy to reach that level in the military.
So the title of the novel actually comes from his internal struggle with growing into the roles that he embodies throughout the story. It really is never an easy day at the office for Kamal at any point throughout the book. I am sure that it does come off as cavalier, but it was not meant to be that way at all. It was crafted to help portray Kamal’s journey.
You moved from Michigan into a war zone. Was this a business or personal decision?
It was a bit of both, but I think I have to provide a little background here before I answer your question. I spent the first 27 years of my life in the United States so I am not one of those who left Pakistan to study at an American university. I went through the US public school system and learned my values from both my parents and those who I associated with. While I am quite proud of the US upbringing and values that I gained, I was always going to be Pakistani, so after working for a major technology company for six years, I packed up my things and moved to Pakistan with a six month plan.
The goal was two-fold for me. First, my mother wanted me to marry a Pakistani girl, so that was in the back of my head, but I also wanted to see what the environment was like for setting up a business or working for someone in the country. When I got my first job in Pakistan, I realized that I would never get the benefits and salary I got in Pakistan in the US. They gave me a monthly salary, car and rented home all as part of my employment package! There was no way that I was going to miss this opportunity.
Now, 17 years later, I have worked for some of Pakistan’s largest technology companies, moved to London and Dubai for a period of years as part of that employment, and have owned my own company for the past 10 years. The move to Pakistan ended up being quite good for me! Oh, yeah, my wife would kill me if I didn’t mention that I got married to a Pakistani girl as well.
The major protagonist, Kamal Khan, has a background curiously similar to that of Usama Bin Laden. Was this an attempt to ‘even the scales’ in light of criticism of upper-class Muslims providing financial support to terror groups?
Oh God no! I think that bin Laden was a scourge on the Muslim population as a whole. But then, I don’t classify bin Laden as a Muslim. He was a terrorist and will always be a terrorist. Religion had nothing to do with what he did, other than provide a recruitment cover for him to indoctrinate others into his personal war.
Kamal, on the other hand, is a hero in the making. He comes from a fairly affluent family, but he was never privy to the wealth that his family held. He spent most of this life, prior to joining the Army, at a boarding school in Peshawar with middle class students. He struggles, not against society, but against those who would tear his country apart with their opinions of Islam.
I haven’t fully addressed it in the first book, but the next two will get into the funding of terror groups operating in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Personally, I hold the position that anyone who is funding these terror groups is just as guilty of the crime as the ones who carry out the suicide attacks, car bombings and the more vicious 9/11 and 7/7 attacks. What I find funny is that these same people are involved in everything that the terror groups stand against from frequenting prostitutes to lavish lifestyles. I can’t understand how the two can get on the same page if the terror groups are really interested in establishing a Muslim society.
We find an inept Azam Shah backed by a more pragmatic Ahsan Chaudhry is resolving the issues facing the regime. Is there more to the storyline than what we first perceive? The competition between Pakistanis and Indians is well-known, and Chaudhry would be thought of by readers as being of Indian descent.
There is a great deal more to the story that will be revealed in the next book. Azam Shah is the typical Pakistani politician who enjoys the spoils of political leadership. He has a basic community college education. He is corrupt, firmly believes in nepotism and is, as you said, inept. This is the political leadership that Pakistan has dealt with in every democratic government, which is why the country is in the state it is in. But that is a discussion for another day.
Ahsan Chaudhry is a diametric opposite to Azam Shah. Ahsan is foreign educated, which in the 1990s meant that you had money. He understands some of the problems that Pakistan faces, but relies greatly on the advice of his core circle to guide him to decisions. The one characteristic that you see with Ahsan that I carried over from the historical model of Pakistani politicians, is the penchant to be controlled by the President and the Army to gain politicial power.
Chaudhry is a common name in both India and Pakistan. Punjab, where the majority of Chaudhrys reside, was divided into two at the time of Partition in 1947. Technically, all first generation Pakistanis are of Indian descent!
Pakistan’s intelligence service, the ISI, has maintained a political cell inside their walls on the insistence of every democratic government. The political cell has one function – to intimidate politicians into following or supporting the government of the day’s agenda. They have been used in the past to bring independent Parliament members into the fold of the major parties. Now, here is the interesting part: when President Musharraf was in government, he shut down the ISI’s political cell. The Pakistan People’s Party government didn’t re-instate it, but when Nawaz Sharif came to power in the rigged elections of 2013, he has tried to move the ISI to reconstitute the political cell, which has failed thus far. Since the intelligence services, which fall under the scope of the Army, don’t answer to the Prime Minister, he is unable to just issue an order and have it done. The Army command must accept the order.
We find General Amjad Ali trying to keep it all together amidst the political and oligarchic confusion. Yet the media makes it appear as if it is the incompetency of the military that allows the Taliban to rule supreme in neighboring Afghanistan. Is your novel an attempt to set the story straight?
Excellent question! Let’s take this in parts, and I am going to apologize in advance for the long answer.
First, the media. The Pakistani media has never known what freedom of speech really means. For decades, Pakistan had one television channel and a handful of newspapers, so the government could control what was or was not printed. The current Prime Minister has a long history of fighting with the media, having once stopped newsprint to a major Urdu publication because they wouldn’t stop writing about his rampant corruption. This was in 1997-98. Since then, the media has exploded in Pakistan.
We now have over 60 domestic television channels and more than 40 daily newspapers in both English and Urdu. This revolution in the media was initiated by President Musharraf, a military dictator, not a civilian elected government.
Even with all the freedom, the media still operates like it did in the past. There are innumerable stories of yellow journalism, false stories being created to embarrass or harass opposition politicians, and some have even been accused of extortion and blackmail. It’s well known throughout Pakistan that when you hear a news story breaking, don’t bother to pay attention because in 20 minutes the story will be different. That’s not a media. That’s the National Enquirer on a massive scale.
The Pakistan Army doesn’t have anything invested in the Taliban in Afghanistan. We did for many years pre-invasion and post-Soviet withdrawal, but that was also a democratic government’s decision. In the early 1970s, Naseer Ullah Babar, a two-star general, was commanding the Frontier Corps, the paramilitary force that patrols the tribal areas of Pakistan and the border with Afghanistan. He was tasked by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, Prime Minister of Pakistan, to fund and train an Afghan mujahideen to suppress the government of Dawood Khan and his vision for a united Pukthunistan. The operation was a massive success that led to Babar resigning his commission in the Army and starting his political career with the same Pakistan People’s Party that Bhutto had founded. In 1988, Babar was appointed the “Special Advisor on Internal Affairs” in Benazir Bhutto’s first government and the Taliban was accepted as the leadership in Afghanistan by Pakistan. The ties between the Pakistan Army and the Afghan Mujahideen (later Taliban) were started during a democratic government.
There are many things that the media doesn’t bring into the conversation, which have had a huge impact on the Pakistan we see today. The media shys away from the Saudi-Wahabi connection with extremist imams in Pakistan. They don’t highlight the billions in funding that is given to these imams to establish madrassahs to indoctrinate the ultra-fundamentalist agenda of Wahabism. They point their fingers at the Army.
I should also add that during the Musharraf government, the Army has been cleansed of the jihadi elements that General Zia espoused and promoted when he was Chief of Army Staff. It was also Musharraf’s government that took the war to the Taliban elements within Pakistan. We have seen a significant decrease in this action since Musharraf left the Presidency, because civilian politicians are unwilling to take the hard steps. Even today, as the Army has pounded the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan’s hideouts and encircled them in preparation for an all-out operation, we have major political leaders, ranging from Imran Khan and Nawaz Sharif, to the religious parties, demanding that the government negotiate with the TTP, rather than deal them a death blow.
So, Agency Rules is not an attempt to set the story straight, rather it is a look behind the curtain to understand all the players, the on ground situation and how Pakistan really works beyond what the media, domestic or international, would like to portray about the country. People need to understand that there is significantly more to the story of Pakistan than the media would like to include in the discourse.
Shahid Aleem is your major antagonist, threatening the Pakistani nation with death and destruction. Yet one of his biggest obstacles is the paramilitary squabbles between the tribes. Do you feel the religious aspects of these arguments were fully discussed? What keeps Pakistan from becoming a self-styled theocracy like Iran?
Imam Shahid is a recruiter, which is why you see so much of him in the first book. He is the epitome of the role that many of the imams I mentioned in the previous answer play in Pakistan. He is someone’s puppet for money.
I didn’t go into a great detail about the religious aspects of these arguments in the first book because of how the story turns in the next book. Also, it is very difficult to separate the religious from the cultural in the Pathan culture. Being a Pathan myself, I have seen how imams use their version of Islam to convince “motivated” individuals to join madrassahs and jihadi movements. Most of what they are teaching these individuals is not Islamic, but a cultural or personal belief structure supported with single line verses from the Holy Quran, which is not how Islam is taught to any thinking person. The standard is different for those who come from a lower economic class. Since the imam is sure that this demographic will never read or understand the Holy Quran themselves, they are free to quote and state whatever they want without being questioned.
The next book, without giving anything away, will go into greater detail about this part of the dynamic in Pakistan. Now, that the reader has been introduced to Pakistani culture, I am able to break things down more into the cultures, beliefs and impacts.
Why has Pakistan not decended into a self-styled theocracy? We have! Pakistan had the unfortunate experience of ultra-fundamentalist General Zia-ul-Haq, who was the sitting military dictator during the Soviet invasion. Zia believed that Pakistan had become too liberal, with the clubs, bars and casinos, and wanted to reel it all in. To do so, he enacted a series of Islamic legislations. The most damning has been the Hudood Ordinance, which has set women’s rights on its head. He also created departments that put most of the decision making behind the approval of a group of imams that sat on the Council for Islamic Interests (CII). The CII’s sole responsibility is to determine if any law passed, or considered, by Parliament meets the requirements set forth in the Holy Quran. If it is not, then the law must be changed.
Pakistan is still living with these laws and departments today because of the sheer influence that the religious democratic parties have. I’ll give you an example: if someone dares to question the blasphemy law, which former Governor Punjab Salmaan Taseer did, the firebrand imams declared him worthy of death. His own security guard assassinated him as he exited his car outside an Islamabad restaurant. The killer was, and still is, considered a hero of Islam for what he did by those firebrand believers. Six years on, the killer has not been convicted of his crime, but sits in a jail cell in Rawalpindi. This is excluding the massive number of minorities that have been killed by angry mobs riled up to take action against someone who most likely made an unknowing mistake.
You’ve obviously done a lot of homework as regards the detailed military narrative in the novel. Do you owe any of this to real-life contacts in Karachi?
Thanks for that! I put a great deal of effort into making sure that the story flowed with the same verve that a spy thriller should. That did mean spending a lot of time with Army officers and soldiers, both retired and serving, to understand the dynamic that I had to get right. I do have a number of friends and family members that are part of Pakistan’s armed forces.
Much of what you read in the pages of Agency Rules is my own personal experience since I moved to Pakistan. I have sat and listened to Friday sermons given by these firebrand imams. I have visited some of the madrassahs in my home area of Swat. I visited the training camps and suicide bomber camps in Khyber Pukhtoonkhwa. And I have seen first-hand the destruction that the Taliban’s way of thinking has poured on Pakistan with both hands.
I can honestly say that I spent years reading everything I could get my hands on to understand all the perceptions and assumptions before I wrote a single word. The only way to get it right is to immerse yourself into the research. Then the whole story flowed as if I was living it out myself.
Reading the numerous reviews you’ve gotten on the novel, most of your critics are expecting a lot more in the sequel. Which aspects of your story are you planning to expound upon?
Critics? I have critics?!? I think that I have been quite fortunate with the acceptance that my novel has gotten across the world. Most of the reviews are very positive and you can tell that they really got into the flow of the story. There have been some that focused on what they wanted to see, rather than what was on the page and that’s ok. Every reader brings some of their own biases and thoughts into anything they read.
In terms of what I am planning to expound upon in the future novels, I can talk about book 2 and 3, which will most likely be released simultaneously towards the end of Fall 2014. Since Kamal is the focus of the story, we will see him grow. His growth will create more questions in his own mind about what he knows and what he sees. There is the introduction of new players in the arena including a suicide bomber, a young politician and a new Army Chief, who will help the readers understand more of the extremist teachings/agenda, the political landscape and the civil-miilitary relationship under a new government. The intent behind the Agency Rules series is not just to tell the reader a story, but to help them experience it from the eyes of those who are telling it. With Pakistan’s disparate population, the reader, like every Pakistani, will be wondering about the intentions of every player, every scenario, and every act. You get to see Pakistan through our eyes, with our pain and our struggle for peace and freedom against all the forces that would like to hamper it.
Where do you see the real-life situation in Karachi heading? It seems as if they’re trying to appease all sides, as is reflected by Azam Shah. Do you see a more active anti-Jihadist campaign emerging in the near future?
Karachi is a timebomb waiting to explode, but it is not the jihadis that present the biggest problem. In Karachi, we stuggle with gangs fighting for more and more terrority in the city, backed by political parties. We struggle with sectarian violence between Sunni and Shia extremist groups that find their home base in Punjab. It’s after all of this that we have the jihadi element to deal with, which is also backed by religious parties and the extremist groups.
The problem comes up when you look at the political side of it. Going back to the 1990s, the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) rose to prominence with a middle-class membership. The MQM is different than all the other political parties in Pakistan because their leadership and members are not agricultural landowners, and they find their base among disgruntled the Urdu- speaking first (emigrants from India as opposed to those already living in what is now Pakistan) and then the wider middle-class of the country. This same MQM was targeted by Naseer Ullah Baber, then Interior Minister, in Operation Clean-Up (Operation Blue Fox) where almost 15,000 members were kidnapped and executed by the Pakistan Rangers, another paramilitary force, and backed by the Pakistan Army.
We saw the power of the MQM just a few days ago when Altaf Hussain, leader and founder of the party, was arrested on money laundering charges in the UK. Karachi, a city of 20 million, was shut down completely within 20 minutes of the news being reported in Pakistan, the Karachi Stock Exchange saw a drop of almost 900 points in the span of an hour. Why did the whole city shutdown? Fear of reprecussions from the MQM.
The media, which you mentioned earlier, doesn’t help with the resolution of the problem either. For six months in 2007, a place known as Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) rose to international prominence when they illegally took over a government library to convert it into an extension for their mosque. The Lal Masjid brigade, as most Pakistanis like to call them, closed down DVD and music CD shops, kidnapped those who they thought were involved in immoral activities and kidnapped police officers that dared to come to close to their base of operations. Each kidnapped person would be released once they accepted their crimes against Islam and promised never to do it again. The media was going nuts on the fact that the Army had not taken any action even though the threat was just a few miles from Prime Minister House, Parliament and numerous foreign missions. One reporter famously asked President Musharraf why he had not ordered any action by the armed forces. Musharraf said, “I know how the media operates in Pakistan. Today, you ask me why I haven’t taken any action, but if tomorrow the government launches an operation against Lal Masjid, you will be the first ones to scream that innocents had been killed.” And that is exactly what happened.
In July when the military, led by our SSG commandos, moved in, the media changed the language from terrorist to martyr. Today, former President Musharraf stands charged with multiple counts of murder for a decision taken to protect the citizens of Islamabad.
When we talk about taking serious action against the jihadis in Karachi, people remember all that has happened in the past causing them to hesitate. The government of the day has taken the position that they must negotiate with the jihadi/TTP elements rather than taking stern military action, which has angered the public and the Army as a whole. 99% of Pakistanis want to be free of these elements in their cities. They want to live in peace, but as long as the government wants to negotiate, the Army has to sit on their hands.
Your biography indicates you’ve had a varied and extraordinary life journey, from Michigan to Karachi. How would you define your mission statement, and will you ever return to any of the places you once called home?
Hahaha… a mission statement. I have seen most of the US and lived in five states – Alabama, Missouri, Indiana, Michigan and Illinois. Outside the US, I lived in all the metropolitan cities of Pakistan, London for a couple of years and Dubai, not to mention the number of places I have traveled on business. I think if I were to give a mission statement, it would be simple. See. Do. Live. People get caught up in the comfortable and miss the extraordinary. I would rather have healthy doses of both in my life.
Will I ever return to any of the places? Of course. My parents and younger sister still live in the US. I have friends scattered around the world from my professional engagements. I will always go back and visit, but I want to see new places, experience new things and let my life enrich itself. It will make me a better writer and allow me to take my readers on wilder adventures!
I wanted to take a minute and thank you, John, for hosting me for this interview. Being that you have read Agency Rules, it made the interview much more interesting than the standard questions that everyone asks. I would also like to thank your readers for stopping by and reading this long discussion, I would hope that some of you would comment, share and tweet this to your friends and family. And, of course, I also hope that some of your readers will be willing to pick up Agency Rules and give it a try. I promise not to disappoint! You can get Agency Rules #1 – Never an Easy Day at the Office on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo and iTunes. It’s available in paperback and digital formats, so you have no excuse not to read it!
About the author…
Khalid Muhammad was born in Pakistan’s troubled Swat Valley, educated and raised in the United States, Khalid returned to Pakistan almost 17 years ago and fell in love with his country. His debut novel, Agency Rules – Never an Easy Day at the Office, is a journey behind the headlines about Pakistan, the world’s most dangerous place, to deliver an intense story that will challenge the reader to question what they have been told.
Find out more about him at agencyrules.com, @AgencyRulesPK (twitter.com/AgencyRulesPK) or the Agency Rules Facebook page (facebook.com/AgencyRulesPK).
Amazon – http://smarturl.it/amazon-ar
B&N – http://bit.ly/BN-AR
iTunes – http://bit.ly/IT-AR
Kobo – http://bit.ly/K-AR