WASHINGTON -- Pakistan looms large in the foreign-policy debate in Washington these days. The reason is a growing awareness of the potential consequences of deepening chaos in the Islamic nuclear power.
Some foreign-policy experts in Washington go so far as to say that Pakistan is already becoming the biggest U.S. foreign-policy challenge of the 21st century.
Former Central Intelligence Agency officer Bruce Riedel has advised three U.S. presidents on the Middle East and South Asia. He makes a forceful case for why Pakistan will be the source of some of Washington's biggest foreign-policy headaches in the years to come.
"In Pakistan, all the critical challenges of the 21st century come together in the same place," Riedel says. "First is the challenge of terrorism and Al-Qaeda. Pakistan is the epicenter of the global jihad. Al-Qaeda, Lashkar-e Taiba, the Afghan Taliban, and the Pakistani Taliban; you have a host of other groups. They're stronger in Pakistan than anywhere else in the world."
Add to that "Pakistan's status of having the fastest-growing nuclear arsenal," he says. "Pakistan is the second-largest Muslim nation in terms of its population and has many more mainstream Islamic people than anywhere else. Therefore the future of Islam and democracy is more at stake in Pakistan than anywhere else."Birth Of 'Af-Pak'
Among Washington's experts on the region there is a widespread consensus about the ineffectiveness of the George W. Bush administration's policies in the region. Yet President Barack Obama can hardly expect a free pass, having pledged to solve the crisis on his watch, which could be as soon as 2012 unless he wins reelection.
Bush's approach to Pakistan focused on maintaining close contact with the Pakistani military and promoting goodwill through generous infusions of cash. While Obama has tried to keep good relations with the military, his administration has put greater emphasis on civilian aid and diplomacy in an effort to increase person-to-person contact.
Thomas Simons, a former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan (1998-99), says Obama has made a good start by bringing efforts to stabilize Afghanistan and Pakistan closer together.
"I think one of the novelties with Obama's people has been that they insist on dealing with both countries together -- the so-called Af-Pak strategy, the idea that you can't deal successfully with Afghanistan without being successful in Pakistan and vice versa," Simons says, "because the situation in the two countries [either] rot each other or they improve together."
Simons, now a visiting lecturer at the Davis Center for Eurasian and Russian studies at Harvard University, says that the civilian part of the project on Pakistan is most obvious in the Kerry-Lugar-Berman bill, a broad raft of aid measures Congress passed in 2009.
Simons says the aid package is intended to fill previously neglected economic and political gaps in the region, particularly in Pakistan. Named for its sponsors, Senators John Kerry (Democrat-Massachusetts), Richard Lugar (Republican-Indiana), and Representative Howard Berman (Democrat-California), the bill was signed by Obama with the official title of "The Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act of 2009."
The package tripled the amount of nonmilitary U.S. aid to Pakistan to $7.5 billion for five years, at the rate of $1.5 billion every year, toward health care, education, and the creation of infrastructure in the social sector.Drone Attacks Effective, Divisive
Huma Yusuf, a columnist at the Pakistani daily newspaper "Dawn," agrees that the Obama administration's approach has made an impact on the ground. The Americans, she says, have made more of an effort to convince Pakistan that this is a long-term friendship. But "with the passage of time not everything has gone well. One of the significant fault lines of this administration was the way the war on terror is being fought," she adds.
A Pakistani holds a burning U.S. flag during a protest in Lahore following a drone attack that killed five people.
"The drone attacks, which have been significantly increased during the Obama administration, are in fact Obama's main weapon at the moment in Pakistan against what the U.S. sees as a terrorist safe haven," Yusuf says. "That policy has proved massively unpopular with the Pakistani people, due to the reason that innocent civilians are getting caught up in a war that the United States is waging."
Moreover, Yusuf says, the United States hasn't paid enough attention to countering negative images among the Pakistani public. "The public messaging of the idea that Pakistani lives and the country's sovereignty and territorial boundaries don't matter to the United States has sort of detracted from any other effort or policy initiative that the Obama administration has had," she says.
One of the big problems has been the campaign of U.S. drone attacks aimed at militant strongholds in Pakistan's tribal region. Former President Bush first launched the campaign in 2004, and Obama has dramatically stepped up its intensity.
According to the New America Foundation in Washington, there were just 41 attacks in the four years leading up to the end of 2008. From 2009 to the present, though, there have been 180 drone strikes in the tribal region. While attacks have killed several top Taliban and Al-Qaeda leaders, reports in the Pakistani media say the most frequent casualties are innocent civilians.
It's an issue that's not only of concern to Pakistani government officials who struggle to maintain ties with Washington. U.S. officials are increasingly aware of the limitations of the strategy, and have begun to question its effectiveness due to its negative side effects on U.S.-Pakistani relations.Shooting Case Latest Hurdle
Drone attacks are only one of the things fueling tensions in the relationship between Washington and Islamabad. Pakistani observers also complain that the promised financial aid under the Kerry-Lugar-Berman bill is not making it through to people on the ground.
Now, the United States finds itself facing a potentially more explosive controversy that is already causing setbacks to U.S.-Pakistani relations.
Raymond Davis, reportedly an employee at the U.S. Consulate in Lahore, is currently in the custody of Pakistani security forces after allegedly shooting two men who he claims were attempting to rob him in Lahore on January 27.
Though the U.S. State Department and Pakistani officials are at odds over Davis's role and official status, on January 28 he appeared in a Pakistani court that charged him with murder. Under Pakistani law, a guilty verdict could bring life imprisonment or a death sentence.
On February 11, a high court in Lahore confirmed that Davis will remain in pretrial detention for at least the next two weeks, pending a hearing scheduled for February 25.
Washington insists that Davis enjoys diplomatic immunity and cannot be legally imprisoned, and U.S. diplomats have been urging the Pakistanis to release him. But U.S. officials have bungled their handling of the case by providing disparate accounts of Davis's activities and status.
That has not prevented Washington from partially suspending high-level dialogue with Pakistan over this case -- a situation that, if nothing else, underscores the cloud of suspicion that continues to darken U.S.-Pakistani relations.
The drama is already providing fodder to some religious parties who are capitalizing on public anger against the United States to rally public support. The crisis has also prompted Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani to dissolve his cabinet and appoint a new group of ministers.
None of this looks especially encouraging to Washington policymakers who are desperate to retain Pakistan as a key ally in the war against jihadi terrorists. So far there is little sign that Obama's strategy, however improved, is capable of coping with the widening dysfunction of the Pakistani state.