Isobel Coleman

Democracy in Development

Coleman maps the intersections between political reform, economic growth, and U.S. policy in the developing world.

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Why There Is “No Exit from Pakistan”

by Isobel Coleman
October 16, 2013

The Pakistan-Afghanistan border, 2011 (Courtesy Reuters/Naseer Ahmed). The Pakistan-Afghanistan border, 2011 (Courtesy Reuters/Naseer Ahmed).


Last week, my colleague Daniel Markey published his latest book: No Exit from Pakistan: America’s Tortured Relationship with Islamabad. The book is a timely, if sober, reminder that Pakistan is too big and too messy to fix, yet too strategic to ignore, much as some U.S. policymakers would like to. Indeed, as the war effort in Afghanistan draws down, pressure will build in Congress to reduce our footprint in Pakistan as well, since so much of our expensive engagement there has resulted in little more than bitterness, on both sides. But Markey cautions against a cut-and-run approach, instead urging Washington to “prepare for the worst, aim for the best, and avoid the most dangerous mistakes of the past.”

Despite deep-seated mistrust on both sides, Markey suggests that the United States should learn from experience to avoid the crisis-driven, short-term policies of the past. He argues that the George W. Bush administration had no long-term, comprehensive approach toward Pakistan, and that the Obama administration’s attempts at expanded diplomacy and counterterrorism have ultimately proven unsuccessful. In determining the future of U.S.-Pakistan relations, Markey argues that Washington should consider and combine three approaches: short-term defensive insulation, which involves coercion and deterrence toward Pakistan and military cooperation with its neighbors; pursuit of a private relationship with the Pakistani military in order to gain leverage and flexibility in negotiations; and, finally, comprehensive cooperation that involves building partnerships with both the military and civilian sectors by conditioning U.S. aid to Pakistani government agencies on good governance, and by conditioning military aid on greater civilian involvement in defense planning and security.

Markey notes that in preparing for the worst, the defensive insulation strategy is the most practical option. In the long-term, however, Washington should pursue a strategy of comprehensive cooperation to avoid global instability, especially as India and China exercise growing influence in the region. Tempering hopeful examples of progress in Pakistan with realistic analysis of security threats and regional dynamics, No Exit from Pakistan is a useful guide to one of the most tormented and important relationships in U.S. foreign policy.

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