There are few countries in the world whose weaknesses have translated into their strengths. Perpetually unstable, Pakistan, the world’s only nuclear-armed Muslim state, is one. Widespread concerns about the safety of Pakistan’s nukes make it extremely hard for the United States to easily ignore or abandon the country. Washington may pillory military rule elsewhere in the world but dictatorships in Pakistan have historically expedited the formation of strategic alliances with the U.S.
While Pakistan’s military rulers instantly gained legitimacy by partnering with the U.S., the latter found it convenient to attain its goals without necessarily going through parliamentary red tape.
Pakistan’s deep-rooted connections with Islamic terrorist groups are no longer a secret. Surprisingly, the U.S. did not punish Pakistan for providing safe sanctuary to Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of 9/11. Some experts believe Pakistan continues to harbor three of the world’s most wanted terrorists namely Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s successor, Mullah Muhammad Omar, head of the Afghan Taliban and Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, chief of the anti-India terrorist group, the Lashkar-e-Taiba.
There is apparently one reason why Washington has failed to strike deal with Pakistan: Islamabad has mastered the art of blackmailing. Any American pressure can culminate in the termination of the existing shaky cooperation Islamabad is offering in the Afghan war. Pakistan’s opposition party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (P.T.I.), recently suspended supplies to the coalition troops in Afghanistan to protest against American drone strikes that target Taliban leaders in Pakistan’s tribal region. The opposition, however, alleges that these strikes kill innocent civilians and violate Pakistan’s sovereignty.
When it is hard to abandon Pakistan and even harder to convince it to stop tolerating and supporting Islamic terrorist groups on its soil then we have to understand that there are neither many policy options nor exit doors for the U.S.
So, what is the best way for the United States to approach Pakistan? This question requires an academic analysis and insights from the policy world.
Daniel Markey, a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations (C.F.R.), is uniquely positioned to do that job. He has come up with a powerful book No Exit from Pakistan, which makes robust inroads into Washington’s policy circles by challenging the previous narrative about the indispensability of the Pakistan army. Markey believes Pakistan is not a “lost cause” but also cautions that it “could fail in ways that are far worse than at present.”
The former State Department official classifies Pakistan as a country with four faces: an elite-dominated basket; a garrison state; a terrorist incubator and a youthful idealist. Pakistan multiplies its faces while dealing with different audiences. Its internal politics and society are deeply influenced by Islam and insecurity from India. Thus, it is these dynamics, not U.S. strategic goals or financial assistance, which defines Pakistan’s relationship with the U.S.
The U.S. and Pakistan have partnered in different phases of the history to attain their respective goals but that partnership never evolved into long-term friendship. The U.S. remains deeply unpopular in Pakistan, while billions of American assistance has not helped win the war on terror or placate the Pakistani public.
Markey quotes a congressman as saying that “Pakistan is like a black hole for American aid. Our tax dollars go in. Our diplomats go in, sometimes. Our aid professional go in, sometimes. Our hopes go in. Our prayers go in. Nothing good ever comes out.”
For Americans to understand what shapes anti-American perceptions among the Pakistanis, Markey has picked up two individuals in his book with contrasting reasons but the mutual hobby of bashing the United States inside Pakistan.
One, Dr. Shireen Mazari, a leading political commentator who, ironically, earned her doctorate at Columbia University, is a major influence on the Pakistani military. Mazari, nicknamed Lady Taliban, represents a breed of Pakistanis who are educated in the West and do not look at all like radical Muslims. Yet, they are instrumental in instilling Islamic nationalism and hatred against India and the United States among top military policymakers. Americans, while dealing with Pakistani army officers and strategists, often fail to detect these individual’s deep religiosity and dislike for non-Muslims, because they speak flawlessly lucid English, dress professionally and carry degrees from top Western universities.
“Mazari’s worldview begins with the conviction that the United States is untrustworthy, India is the enemy and China is Pakistan’s one true ally,” Markey observes, “She reflects a mind-set that runs throughout much of the Pakistan’s military, no matter that tens of billions of dollars in US assistance and weaponry has flowed to Pakistan over the decades.”
Second, Aitzaz Ahsan, a liberal lawyer and politician, represents the other school of thought, which blames the U.S. for contributing to Pakistan’s dysfunction by bolstering the country’s army. Hence, liberal Pakistanis form another anti-America constituency that criticizes the U.S. for intentionally undermining democracy and free expression in their country by supporting dictators like Ayub Khan, Zia-ul-Haq and Pervez Musharraf.
While Markey provides an exhaustive historical account of U.S.-Pakistan relations, the most striking feature of his book is the realization that empowering Pakistan’s military at the cost of democratic institutions was a U.S. mistake. Washington’s personalization of relations with different autocrats has significantly weakened the state of Pakistan.
“A military-first approach toward Pakistan suffers from the crucial fact that the army has never run the country very effectively,” he writer, “the general has never even managed to set Pakistan on the path to better governance, unlike celebrated strongmen in other countries such as Turkey or Singapore…America will be better off it advocates universal principles and supports stronger democratic institutions in Pakistan rather than specific individuals.”
Markey describes Pakistan as a “country of crises,” as he notes that 50 percent of the country’s children between the ages of six to sixteen cannot read a sentence while the it spends only 2 percent of its GDP on education.
A Pakistan that prioritizes the use of proxy Islamic extremist groups against its eastern and western neighbors will also impede the economic development of the South Asian region. There are limits to what Washington can do to stabilize and normalize the country. While scholars like Markey insist that there is “no exit” from Pakistan, most Pakistanis within the ruling class in fact view such conclusions as a positive because, in a way, they promise the continuity of American aid. U.S. assistance is not likely to help redefine the idea of Pakistan nor can it fix most of its internal mess.
Instead of perpetuating the chaos inside Pakistan and justifying the provision of aid, it is important to seriously assess the cost of a failed and yet confrontational Pakistan in an otherwise economically thriving South Asian region. The United States can best help Pakistan by helping rid it of its addiction to foreign aid. Ultimately, there has to be an American exit from Pakistan.
Pakistanis will have to take ownership of their own country and reset their national goals and priorities. An appetite for nuclear weapons and an arms race with India has caused widespread poverty, illiteracy and disease. Yet American authorities still hesitate to frankly discuss Pakistan’s nuclear program and the prospects of Islamist extremists gaining control over it. That country draws its confidence and sense of adventurism mostly from the fact that it can no longer be ignored because of its nuclear program.
Sooner or later, the world will have to sit down for a serious conversation whether a nuclear armed Pakistan promises a safer and more prosperous South Asia or further endangers the region’s overall safety. While the international community should help Pakistan improve its economy and social indicators through strictly monitored foreign aid, removing nuclear weapons from the South Asian region and ending the arms race between Pakistan and India are essential to long-term peace, stability and prosperity.
Malik Siraj Akbar, based in Washington D.C., is a South Asia analyst and the editor-in-chief of The Baloch Hal, Pakistan’s first hyper-local online newspaper.