During the final dark days of the Second World War, the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre first staged his play, Huis Clos, in Nazi-occupied Paris. In English, the title is usually translated as No Exit.
Sartre’s drama featured three sinners, all dead to the world, who learn to their surprise that hell is not a land of fire, brimstone, and devils, but an oddly furnished living room where they are subjected to eternal torment by each other. The more they interact, the more the sinners come to appreciate that they are perfectly suited to the task, each vulnerable to precisely the psychological torture meted out by the others, and each capable of inflicting similarly devastating punishment in return.
In a moment of epiphany, one of Sartre’s characters exclaims, “Hell is other people!” And yet, when the living room door swings open and the three have a chance to make a run for it, they cannot. The moment the escape option is presented, the sinners recognize it as an illusion. The only possible path to salvation is through struggle against their special tormentors. And that means there is truly no exit; they are stuck “for ever, and ever, and ever.”
For American and Pakistani diplomats, policymakers, military officers (and a handful of think tank analysts like this author) who have been condemned to work with one another, this vision of perpetual mutual torment strikes close to home. For much of the past decade, Pakistan has been rocked by internal turmoil and exceptional levels of violence. Over the same period, relations between Washington and Islamabad have run from frustrating to infuriating.
This is nothing new. Well before Pakistan so routinely made headline news in America, the relationship was also a tortured one. Like Sartre’s sinners, the United States and Pakistan have tormented each other for decades, if in very different ways. Both sides believe they have been sinned against. Even at high points in the relationship, there were still underlying irritations and disagreements that got in the way of building any sort of strong, sustainable cooperation.
In the early Cold War era, when Pakistan joined America’s global effort to contain the Soviet Union, contentious negotiations over the scale of U.S. assistance nearly derailed the nascent alliance. Later, during the1980s when the two sides worked hand in glove to assist the Afghan mujahedeen in their war against the Soviet Union, the Pakistanis secretly pursued a nuclear weapons program that Washington opposed. When the Cold War ended, Pakistan’s nuclear program moved ahead at full steam as the U.S.-Pakistan relationship fell into a disastrous, decade-long tailspin.
At the lowest points in the relationship, such as the late 1970s, the two sides behaved more like adversaries than allies. When Pakistani student protesters ransacked the U.S. embassy in Islamabad in 1979, Pakistan’s ruling general Ziaul-Haq cynically decided to let the protest burn itself out rather than to venture a serious rescue attempt. Two Americans died that day, and only the stout walls of the embassy vault and some lucky timing allowed another 139 American and Pakistani personnel to escape the smoldering embassy grounds alive. Had the story ended differently, an already tense relationship between Washington and Islamabad might have collapsed into outright hostility.
Few Americans or Pakistanis now recall that episode in 1979, but many young Pakistanis are taught to recite a litany of other low points in the relationship. These include several instances of what they call American “abandonments,” such as when the United States did not adequately rise to Pakistan’s defense in its wars with India in 1965 or 1971, or in 1990 when Washington slapped sanctions on Pakistan for pursuing a nuclear weapons program. American historians describe these events differently. They correctly observe that Pakistan’s own choices – to go to war and to build a nuclear arsenal – led to predictable American responses, not betrayals.
Download the full excerpt from Daniel Markey’s No Exit from Pakistan here.