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28 November 2013, Gateway House

Book review: Improving U.S.-Pakistan ties

In ‘No Exit from Pakistan: America’s Tortured Relationship with Islamabad,’ author Daniel Markey analyses the complex U.S.-Pakistan bilateral and suggests ways for Washington to improve the relationship.

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The subtitle of Daniel Markey’s book, ‘No Exit from Pakistan,’ could not be more apt, because, as the author goes on to expound, the relationship between Pakistan and the U.S. has indeed been a tortured one. The title refers to Jean Paul Sartre’s play ‘No Exit,’ in which Sartre describes hell not as a place of brimstone and fire but as a room in which people must suffer each other. That point is well taken, because, notwithstanding the frustrations the two nations may feel toward each other, neither can pull out of it.

Markey’s book is direct and honest in its analysis of the history of the two nations and how they are caught in a web of mistrust, with each party feeling more sinned against than sinning.

His unsparing critique of the U.S. policy toward Pakistan reminds us repeatedly that the “history of U.S. relations with Pakistan is replete with shortsightedness.” He maintains that the U.S. lurched from one crisis to the next, never developing a strategic approach to Pakistan. The U.S. sought Pakistan’s help through various historic events: cooperation during the cold war; a diplomatic conduit during the thawing of relations between the U.S. and China; assistance in arming the Mujahideen at the time of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; an entrepôt after the attacks of 9/11 when Pakistan was summarily told to do the U.S.’ bidding. The mistake, Markey points out, stems from the U.S. focusing on transactional events when it has a “full and complicated agenda in Pakistan.” “Washington is guilty of placing other goals – from anti-communism and nonproliferation to counterterrorism – over its commitment to Pakistan per se.”

Markey places the U.S. strategic interests in Pakistan under three categories: the immediate threat of terrorism; the vital threat of nuclear weapons; and the emergent threat of regional stability given “Pakistan’s size, location, and potential for instability and violence.” While the first two threats have tended to absorb the political establishment in Washington, the author suggests that the United States should think very seriously about the third threat “especially when it comes to navigating relationships with rising powers like China and India.”

Having delineated the strategic interests of the U.S., the author lays out three alternatives for Washington. The first is defensive insulation to protect the U.S. from Pakistan-based threats, such as nuclear proliferation and terrorism. The second is labeled by the author as the ‘military–first cooperation’ wherein the U.S. provides technical and financial assistance to Pakistan’s military to address top security concerns; and lastly, a comprehensive cooperation entailing both military and civilian leadership with a view to building a more stable Pakistan. Markey emphasizes the need for strategic thinking regarding Pakistan because of the U.S. desire to see India rise as a counterbalance to the emerging strength of China; after all India’s rise can be readily derailed by an unstable Pakistan. However, he makes no particular recommendations among the three alternatives.

While criticizing the U.S. for its lack of understanding of Pakistan, the author is sympathetic about Washington’s ambivalence.  As he points out, it is difficult to paint a realistic portrait of Pakistan since “the country shows different faces to different audiences.” To some, Pakistan appears to be an elite-dominated basket case; to others, it is a garrison state in which the military has grown so powerful it dictates politics; to yet others, and this is perhaps the most prevalent view currently, it is a terrorist state that spouts an extreme ideology. Finally, Pakistan has a very young demographic and is full of idealistic young people. The author deserves credit for focusing on these new trends and grassroots efforts that are trying to transform Pakistani society and politics and have generally been ignored in political debates.

The author is less critical of Pakistan’s mistakes.  He acknowledges that Pakistan always “perceived its relationship with Washington as a means to deal with India,” and refers to former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf’s memoirs in which he says “Pakistan chose to partner with America out of fear that Washington and New Delhi might unite against Pakistan, not because Islamabad felt a genuine compulsion to assist after the 9/11 tragedies.” In a broad sweep at the manner in which those in power have conducted themselves, he states that Islamabad is guilty of “misrepresenting its commitment to American goals in order to extract the material benefits of partnership with a superpower.”

So what is the shape of Pakistan’s future? There are several schools of thought on this intractable question, and the author refers to the leading thinkers on the subject. In one camp is Anatol Lieven of the New America Foundation who believes Pakistan’s feudal structure and its well entrenched army will “continue to dominate, producing relative stability for years to come.” Then there is John Schmidt, who was the U.S. political counselor in Islamabad from 1998-2001 – who opines these same forces will be destabilizing influences blocking necessary reforms. The third camp recognies the changes taking place at the grassroots level but fears Pakistani leaders’ inability to come to terms with the changes sweeping the country, resulting in violent extremism dominating the nation. Finally Markey refers to the optimism reflected in the thinking of Maleeha Lodhi, former Pakistani ambassador to the U.S. who believes that the country “may yet re-imagine its future.”

Having stated the several schools of thought regarding the future of Pakistan, the author lays out the following conclusions about Pakistan’s trajectory. Revolution and state failure are unlikely but the country will remain vulnerable to nightmarish scenarios. Markey recognizes the need to bring about reform but admits that a great deal of hard work is required by the Pakistanis. Reformers within the country need to recognize its geographic potential and the gain from freer trade and “investments in corridors that would improve, for instance, the flow of fossil fuels across Asia.”

Markey is firmly of the opinion that the U.S.’s relations with Pakistan must not get mired in Afghanistan and the Haqqani Network. He draws the reader’s attention to the following: “These interests begin with Washington’s vital concerns about the safety and security of Pakistan’s nuclear program, which are tied up with broader questions of Pakistan’s stability and the trajectory of its state and society.” It is the geopolitics of the region that the U.S. needs to take seriously as also the civil-military imbalance in the country.  Pakistan’s nationalists having seen American foreign policy come and go, driven by short term self interest, fear abandonment.   The U.S. needs a realistic plan “to address the socioeconomic and especially the political trends that have given strength to Pakistan’s jihadists.” Otherwise Pakistan’s terrorists will silence the liberals and co-opt the nationalists.

No Exit from Pakistan is direct and analytical in its effort to answer the eternal question of the relationship – how and why it soured.  The book lays out policy prescriptions the U.S. can adopt to improve matters but his judgment on Pakistan remains light inasmuch as no policy recommendations are outlined for Pakistan to adopt.

The book correctly states that understanding Pakistan is critical to developing a long term strategy in the U.S. but it fails to identify past Pakistani errors and the steps they could take to improve this complex relationship. The book would appear to place the burden more heavily on Washington.

No Exit from Pakistan: America’s Tortured Relationship with Islamabad’ by Daniel Markey. Cambridge University Press, 2013

Meera Kumar is a New York-based public relations professional. She has worked with the Asian Development Bank, the State University of New York, New York University, and several Fortune 20 companies. She started her career as a journalist writing for various media outlets in Southeast Asia, including the ‘Bangkok Post’ and ‘The Nation.’

This review was exclusively written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive content here.

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