No Exit from Pakistan: America’s Tortured Relationship with Islamabad by Daniel S. Markey, Cambridge University Press, 2013, ISBN-13: 978-1107623590, 253 pp., $71.16 (Hardcover), $25.19 (Paperback), $12.49 (Kindle).
There is much to ponder in this well-written and comprehensive account of US-Pakistan relations and where we go from here. It is not an encouraging book for those looking for solutions. There are no easy ones.
Markey sets the tone with his title. “No Exit” refers to the Jean-Paul Sartre play in which three people find themselves condemned to spending eternity tormenting each other, with no way out. Markey, who spent four years working on the U.S.-Pakistan relationship at the State Department, sees Washington and Islamabad suffering the same fate, tied together in a cycle of mutual recrimination. To his credit, he tries to find a way out.
He outlines U.S. interests in Pakistan—not surprisingly, counter-terrorism, the threat of nuclear weapons, and regional stability. He also paints a nuanced picture of Pakistan today – part economic basket case, part military-dominated garrison state, part terrorist incubator, and part youthful idealist. Only the last is vaguely hopeful for the future. And, he tries to explain the anti-Americanism that so pervades Pakistan today.
But the best part of the book is the cogent and informed recounting of the travails of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship since 9/11. He contrasts the Colin Powell/Rich Armitage era at the State Department—the “realist” era when the U.S., out of necessity, worked closely with the military government of General/President Pervez Musharraf—with the Condi Rice period marked by her “freedom agenda” promoting democracy in the Muslim world. We should not make too much of this distinction. Events in Pakistan—especially exhaustion with Musharraf—were driving events at least as much as U.S. policy interests. Markey acknowledges as much, but points out that U.S. efforts to mediate a gradual transition to civilian rule in the lead up to the 2008 elections ended with the U.S. being blamed by all sides. The lesson: sometimes it’s best to support democratic institutions, and not specific individuals (in this case, Benazir Bhutto).
By the time we get to the Obama administration, there is a civilian government in Islamabad and a bipartisan effort in Washington to support it. Markey delves deeply into how the Kerry-Lugar-Berman bill to provide $1.5 billion in civilian assistance per year ended up backfiring in Pakistan. American good intentions were mixed with Congressional attempts to link the assistance to conditions on counter-terrorism and reporting requirements on civilian control of the military and the “process of promotion” within the military. US policymakers focused on getting the funds in play and did not argue with the Congressional conditions, which ultimately created a firestorm in Pakistan.
How to spend the money became another inside-the-Beltway battle with larger consequences for our Pakistan relationship. Dick Holbrooke, Secretary Clinton’s Pakistan czar, was determined to spend the money on large-scale, signature infrastructure projects of the kind USAID was neither capable of nor inclined to support. As all Washington observers know, when there is too much money to spend, it is never spent well. Washington’s delivery did not live up to the promise. The lesson here: best intentions are not enough.
“America’s Options,” the last chapter, outlines three routes for U.S. policy in the years ahead. I had thought Markey’s initial option “defensive insulation” was merely a straw man to be dismissed at the end. That prescription—isolating Pakistan while protecting ourselves by putting up political and military barriers to the threats from there—seemed too drastic. His other two options—engagement primarily with the military and what he calls “comprehensive cooperation” are closer to the policies we have pursued over past decades. His conclusion, sadly, is that for now we need to tilt toward the isolation option until Pakistan is willing to address its own internal problems and to accept the U.S. as part of the solution.
He makes a well-reasoned case for this depressing policy prescription (which alone is worth reading the book) but I find it difficult to reconcile this with his acknowledgment that “a strong US-Pakistan relationship offers the only way to save Pakistan from a dark and dangerous future, and the only way to protect America from the dangers that lurk in Pakistani soil.” Anyone who knows the region well (as Markey certainly does) could probably agree that we will need Pakistan’s cooperation again in the not-distant future for crucial national security goals. Pakistan cannot be treated like an Iran or North Korea or we risk creating an even more dangerous state than we deal with now.