The US-Pakistan ties that bind

No Exit from Pakistan: America’s Tortured Relationship with Islamabad by Daniel S Markey 

As events unfolded in the this month’s audacious terror attack on Karachi International Airport, discussion in the Twitter space in Pakistan buzzed with hash tags like #Karachiairportattack, #ASF ,#raymonddavisnetwork and #dirtywars. This underlines the deep skepticism of many, if not all, in Pakistan about United States involvement in stoking creative chaos in the country. 

So what does this mean for the future of Pakistan-US relations? Daniel S Markey’s latest volume on US-Pakistan relations attempts to answer exactly this difficult question. 

Markey argues that Pakistan is potentially a hostile and difficult state for United States to manage but despite several setbacks and failures in the bilateral relationship, neither Pakistan nor the United States can afford a permanent breakup. 

He maintains that immediate, vital and emergent threats emanating from Pakistan will have a negative impact on US regional interests in South Asia, Central Asia and the Middle East. It is due to this, the author argues, that contrary to what many experts and officials may feel in Washington, the United States cannot afford to disengage. 

Markey systematically survey’s Pakistan-US relations, as he sees them, at the three levels of domestic, regional and international politics – helping the reader easily grasp book’s arguments presented. He skillfully links all arguments on these three levels to broader US interests in the region. 

The broad theme of this book is that Pakistan has become a more dangerous country for US interests and poses difficult challenges for it to manage. The author makes this conclusion based on his observations of societal trends – a move towards the radical right – and a deterioration of state institutions and governance weaknesses. 

The author says that these trends, coupled with Pakistan’s geopolitical and geostrategic location, will create problems for US policy if the bilateral relationship is not stabilized. 

Detailing the domestic milieu, Markey identifies four different faces of Pakistan: an elite-dominated country where feudals and top industrialists have appropriated its resources, a garrison state where the political center of power is the military, a terrorist incubator and lastly, a land of youthful idealists. 

The author explains the evolution of this politico-socio-economic structure and arrives at three potential scenarios in the trajectory of the Pakistan state. 

The first is that there will be a revolution and a failure of the state, the second is there will be a continuation of crisis without a revolution, and the third scenario is the success of reformist politics. 

The roots of anti-American sentiment within all the camps inside Pakistan – ie the liberals, the nationalists and the Islamists – are also identified in detail and the author discusses how these beliefs have played a role in frustrating US financial and political investments. 

A significant portion of the book covers the larger geopolitical context of US engagement with Pakistan and the South Asia region. The author has correctly identified that US engagement with Pakistan does not exist in a vacuum and is influenced by what was happening in the broader region and at the international level. 

In the Cold War days, the author argues, containment of communism was the strategic context of US engagement with Pakistan, and this led to security alliances and economic support. In contemporary times, the managing of China’s rise has become the operative context. So the interest is not in Pakistan per se but the broader region which has driven US policy towards Pakistan. 

The author also outlines policy options and their consequences for the United States in dealing with Pakistan. The options he presents are: “defensive insulation”, “military first cooperation” and the “comprehensive approach”. 

The option of “defensive insulation” entails a more robust US pressure on Pakistan in case the US fails to get cooperation from a hostile Pakistan government. This can be achieved by building diplomatic, military and political barriers around Pakistan’s geographic surroundings. The US should also be prepared to target Pakistan’s nuclear program militarily, he argues. 

For “military first cooperation”, Markey says that the US should enhance its military to military cooperation with Pakistan in order to cultivate officers within the ranks. The objective of this strategy is to counter increasing Islamist and anti-American currents within the army. 

“Comprehensive approach” argues for expending more US economic, cultural and political capital in order to build moderate constituencies. Markey does not argue for the US to subsidize Pakistan’s economic growth and maintains that this work has to be done by Pakistanis themselves. 

For South Asia watchers, this book will enhance understanding of US policy towards Pakistan and South Asia. Three other books on similar topics have come from United States recently, written by important policy scholars. It is interesting to note that Markey’s assessment offers nothing fundamentally different from what these have discussed. 

In fact, this book represents continuity in the US thinking towards South Asia, anchored around three principles of its rebalancing to Asia-Pacific: the containment of China, propping up India as a regional counter-weight to China, and pressurizing Pakistan to subsidize India’s growth in the region. 

Since the present government came to office in Pakistan in 2013, it has become clear that Obama administration has reviewed the tactics of its approach towards Islamabad – but not the strategic paradigm. 

The US tactics includes components of all the three policy options laid out by the author of this book, such as managing anti-Americanism sentiment through less visible involvement, giving time to the Nawaz administration to settle down, and suspending drone strikes. It can also be seen in US moves to push the International Monetary Fund to inject money into Pakistan’s economy, in increasing people-to-people contacts and in support for Nawaz’s overtures to India. 

The book reaffirms a rare consensus among the nationalists, Islamists and to a certain extent the liberal class within the policy elites in Pakistan: that US-Pakistan relations will remain transactional to say the least and outright hostile in other cases – despite the pleasantries of strategic dialogue process. 

It is also difficult to agree with any author that says radical political change in Pakistan will lead to collapse of the state. Linking the two without any reasonable proof reflects simplicity on the behalf of many Western academics in studying an otherwise complex subject of state, society and political order. 

Navigating the country through the negative currents of contemporary US policy in South Asia will be a real test of Pakistani statecraft. 

No Exit from Pakistan: America’s Tortured Relationship with Islamabad by Daniel S Markey. Cambridge University Press, 2013. ISBN-10: 1107623596. Price: US$24.68; 253 pages. 

Reviewed by Majid Mahmood 

Majid Mahmood is a research officer for foreign affairs at the Center for International Strategic Studies Islamabad (CISS) and a post -graduate scholar in the International Relations Department at the National Defense University, Pakistan. 

(Copyright 2014 Majid Mahmood) 

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