Pakistan: The Mess We Can’t Ignore

The Prisoner

by Omar Shahid Hamid
New Delhi: Pan Macmillan, 352 pp., Rs 350.00 (paper)
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Todd Heisler/The New York Times/Redux
Malala Yousafzai, who survived a 2012 assassination attempt by the Taliban in Pakistan for advocating for the education of girls, at the United Nations, New York City, July 2013

Daniel Markey takes the title and opening remarks of No Exit from Pakistan, his book on the US–Pakistani relationship, from Sartre’s Huis Clos, a work that contains the famous dictum “Hell is other people.” Hell, for many US policymakers, is having to work with Pakistan. As Markey writes, the degree of sheer personal animosity felt by parts of the Washington establishment toward Pakistan is beginning to have a serious effect on clarity of thought about that country.

The chief motive for Markey’s book is indeed to argue against the large and growing body of opinion in Washington that following the US quasi withdrawal from Afghanistan, it will be both possible and desirable to disengage from Pakistan, in view of its growing anti-Americanism and its tolerance of jihadi and other terrorist groups hostile to the US. A more extreme version of this view calls for the “containment” of Pakistan—a term taken from the strategy developed by George Kennan and others for dealing with the Soviet Union in the first years of the cold war.

Given the extent to which Pakistan and the US have gotten on each other’s nerves in recent years, putting a greater distance between them might seem a very good idea. The notion of moving to a hostile “containment” of Pakistan, however, suffers from several flaws. It ignores the presence of large Pakistani diasporas in the West, which make the very idea of “containing” Pakistan ridiculous. It implies that the US will lose all interest in the fate of Afghanistan once US ground forces are withdrawn. It misses the great importance of Pakistan to the increasingly fraught triangular relationship between the US, India, and China. And it implies handing an even greater share of the responsibility for dealing with Pakistan to the CIA and the US Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC).

As Mark Mazzetti makes clear in The Way of the Knife, his powerful exposé of the strategy of these forces since September 11, that would be a really bad idea. The militarization of US intelligence has both reflected and encouraged a tendency to forget certain crucial points about Pakistan.

The first is that groups based in Pakistan are only part of the Pakistani terrorist threat to the West. Launching attacks in the West requires terrorists from the Pakistani diaspora in the West. It is therefore not helpful to US security to kill terrorists in Pakistan if the result is to radicalize Pakistanis in the US and other Western countries—which is why the British authorities, acutely aware of their large, growing, and deeply troubled Pakistani communities, have a significantly different attitude toward these issues than their US counterparts.

The second point—and this is something that even Markey sometimes seems to forget—is that in the …

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