The South Asia Channel

No Exit from Pakistan

Dan Markey, No Exit from Pakistan: America’s Tortured Relationship with Islamabad (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013). Since President Obama took office in 2009, there have been several books published highlighting the deception, failures, and flaws of the relationship between the United States and Pakistan. Most of these books, such as Mark Mazzetti’s The Way ...

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Dan Markey, No Exit from Pakistan: America’s Tortured Relationship with Islamabad (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

Since President Obama took office in 2009, there have been several books published highlighting the deception, failures, and flaws of the relationship between the United States and Pakistan. Most of these books, such as Mark Mazzetti’s The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth, Vali Nasr’s The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat, and David Sanger’s Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power offer insider accounts of the U.S. and Pakistani political dynamics that made it so, with a particular focus on U.S. counterterrorism policies and the war in Afghanistan.

All of these texts open a window into Washington’s thinking, infighting, and attempts to fix what has become America’s most tortured relationship. Nasr talks about Pakistan’s "frenemy" status with the United States and whether it is in the U.S. interest "to stress the friend part or the enemy part." Sanger elaborates on Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who as Chief of Army Staff "understood the American paranoia about a Pakistani meltdown, and he took advantage of it." Mazzetti gets to the heart of the matter when he says that the CIA’s war in places like Pakistan was conceived as "a surgery without complications," but became a "way of the knife" that "created enemies just as it has obliterated them," fomenting "resentment among former allies and at times contribut[ing] to instability even as it has attempted to bring order to chaos."

While American policymaking in Pakistan remains haunted by the demons of the September 11th attacks, even older demons linger on the Pakistani side, among them the memory of U.S. sanctions, American pressure on its nuclear weapons program, and the CIA’s reliance on Pakistan’s covert support during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. During a 1995 Senate hearing, then-Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia Robin Raphel described the discontent of the Pakistanis, explaining that: "the key impact of sanctions relief is not military or financial. The effect would be primarily in the political realm, creating a sense of faith restored and an unfairness rectified with a country and people who have been loyal friends of the United States over the decades."

Dan Markey’s new book, No Exit from Pakistan: America’s Tortured Relationship with Islamabad, heeds Raphel’s comments and attempts to answer the perennial questions of the relationship: why do they hate us? How did it get so bad? What are America’s options for future relations with Pakistan? Markey roots his analysis in French existentialism, of all things. In French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre’s play No Exit, "three sinners, all dead to the word" are subject to "eternal torment by each other," each both capable of and vulnerable to the punishment doled out by the others. Building on this idea, No Exit from Pakistan argues that while "Pakistan’s leaders tend to be tough negotiators with high thresholds for pain, Washington can cut new deals and level credible threats to achieve U.S. goals. This is not a friendly game, but out of it both sides can still benefit."                                                                              

Markey spends a good portion of the book summarizing themes, issues, and events since 1947 that explain this mutual vulnerability and mutual gain between the United States and Pakistan. And he covers the full gamut: Cold War cooperation, sanctions, anti-Americanism, energy, trade, infrastructure development, India, China, the Musharraf years, demographics, youth culture, Afghanistan, the Osama bin Laden Raid, the list goes on.

As an introductory primer for understanding what ails the relationship, this approach is constructive, especially in understanding the U.S.-Pakistan dynamics since 9/11. Markey also writes with a directness and honesty that should be appreciated in the context of one of Washington’s most sensitive relationships. He accuses the Pakistanis of being addicted to U.S. assistance dollars, while claiming "Washington’s top policymakers felt a personal animus towards Pakistan."

Markey also rightly focuses on new political trends and ideas in Pakistani popular culture that have been largely ignored in other accounts of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship, as well as in the course of much of the policymaking in both countries. For example, when discussing Pakistani notions of abandonment and national honor, Markey highlights the nationalist anti-American sentiment that grew from nuclear sanctions both among the government and the Pakistani public. As a sign of progress, he notes the success of Pakistani pop band Beygairat Brigade, who released a video on YouTube in 2011 "with thinly veiled references to a wide cast of Pakistani xenophobes, religious extremists, and conspiracy theorists" with lyrics that "lampoon many of the notions associated with defending Pakistan’s national pride."

Herein lies the strength of Markey’s analysis – his acknowledgment of the grassroots efforts currently afoot that are trying to transform Pakistani politics. He identifies four complex and often contradictory identities of Pakistan: "the elite-dominated basket case," the "garrison state," a "terrorist incubator," and a "youthful idealist, teeming with energy and reform-minded ambition." Without this information, the casual observer of Pakistani politics can easily conclude that the government and its people are merely confused, duplicitous, careless – or all three.    

It is hard to argue with the claim that knowing Pakistan is critical to understanding the U.S.-Pakistan relationship. But what of the Pakistanis – do they not need to understand why the United States behaves the way it does? Markey’s approach puts the entire onus on the Americans to understand how complex Pakistan can be.

While he does outline a comprehensive set of options for managing the U.S.-Pakistan relationship – ranging from looking beyond Afghanistan, waiting until after 2014, "defensive isolation" which involves ending formal cooperation, to comprehensive cooperation – he fails to suggest which specific path the countries should take, or even how the United States and Pakistan might prioritize the management or mitigation of threats over time. Markey simply recommends that the solution for this troubled relationship is nothing other than "patient, sustained effort, not by way of quick fixes or neglect" and that "managing or mitigating threats over time is a more realistic expectation." But is he speaking for the United States, Pakistan, or both? It is not clear.

No Exit from Pakistan is more useful as a relationship management strategy than a po
licy prescription. But the United States and Pakistan seem to have already entered the realm of relationship management over disengagement. This proved true after a NATO cross-border strike in November 2011 at the Salala border post, where over 24 Pakistani soldiers were killed. Pakistan closed NATO routes for nearly seven months and the United States delayed coalition support funds payments. The two countries eventually resumed dialogue after the brief period of disengagement with the tacit acknowledgement that they had gone too far, especially so close to the pending withdrawal of NATO troops from Afghanistan in 2014.  

Ultimately, No Exit from Pakistan introduces some uncomfortable questions about ownership and blame in the U.S.-Pakistan relationship. On the one hand, Markey blames the basket case quality of Pakistan on the country’s political elites, who "sent their children to private boarding schools while millions of other children never learned to read. Too many sipped cool cucumber soup even as their countrymen struggled to find safe drinking water." But on the other hand, he recognizes that the $1.5 billion-per-year U.S. assistance pledge, known as "Kerry-Lugar-Berman," "was not grounded in an assessment of specific Pakistani development needs or America’s ability to meet them."

This is perhaps the true perennial question Markey has set out to answer – who is responsible for Pakistan’s problems? He would agree that the United States and Pakistan share in the blame. The decades-long focus of the bilateral relationship on security assistance, militancy, covert activity, and proxy wars has left much unattended by way of development, economics, and stability. Likewise, in Pakistan: A Hard Country, Anatol Lieven pushes for the recognition that the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan "has been responsible for increasing Islamist insurgency and terrorism since 2001." In Mohammed Hanif’s A Case of Exploding Mangoes, it becomes acutely apparent whom and what is to blame. The book is a fictional account of the events leading up to the deaths of Pakistani military ruler Gen. Zia ul-Haq and American Ambassador Arnie Raphel in a C-130 plane crash in 1989. As they walk to the plane to enjoy a case of Pakistani mangoes, Zia says to Raphel: "Now we must put our heads together and suck national security."

The controversial writer Salman Rushdie tackled the same question from another angle in his 1983 work of fiction, Shame, which focuses on internal politics in Pakistan and relations between the East and West. Rushdie writes:

Wherever I turn, there is something of which to be ashamed. But shame is like everything else; live with it for long enough and it becomes part of the furniture…you can find shame in every house, burning in an ashtray, hanging framed upon a wall, covering a bed. But nobody notices it any more. And everyone is civilized.

Rushdie’s final reminder is simply: "Shame, dear reader, is not the exclusive property of the East."

While the anguish of Sartre’s No Exit resonates strongly with the current psychology of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship, Rushdie’s commentary on shame is a much stronger parallel. It too recognizes that both countries pursue their own interests even as they inflict harm upon themselves and each other. But it focuses on a much more embarrassing aspect of the mutual vulnerability: the fact that the harm, which has become so prevalent, is unacknowledged. Yet both move forward together because, as Markey says, "this is not a friendly game, but out of it both sides can still benefit," even though there is much to be ashamed about.  

Shamila N. Chaudhary is Senior Advisor to Dean Vali R. Nasr at the Johns Hopkins University Paul H. Nitze School for Advanced International Studies and is a Senior South Asia Fellow at the New America Foundation.

Shamila N. Chaudhary is Senior Advisor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and Senior South Asia Fellow at New America. She served as Director of Afghanistan and Pakistan at the White House National Security Council from 2010 – 2011.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola