As Taliban militants wage a growing insurgency in Pakistan, U.S. officials are increasingly anxious about the deteriorating security situation in a fragile country armed with nuclear weapons and vital to U.S. strategy in the region.
Pakistan and Afghanistan form the core of one of President Obama's toughest foreign policy challenges. This week in Washington, Obama will meet with the presidents of those countries in order to improve relations and plot a way to counter Taliban and al-Qaida gains.
The Obama administration appeared caught off guard by the speed of the Taliban offensive in Buner in April, when fighters moved into an area just 60 miles from the Pakistani capital, Islamabad.
The offensive sparked high level meetings at the White House and the National Security Council. Senior U.S. diplomats and military officials began pressuring their Pakistani counterparts to go after the Taliban, but the Pakistani government and military seemed hesitant, even reluctant. Worry in Washington mounted over whether Pakistan's fragile government could survive.
Taken To Task By Clinton
The level of concern was made clear by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on April 22, when she accused the Pakistani government of "basically abdicating to the Taliban and the extremists."
Shortly after that statement, the Pakistani military began a counteroffensive.
Andrew Exum, with the Center for a New American Security, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, says that Clinton's statement obviously hit a nerve in Pakistan's military circles.
"The Pakistani military still sees itself as a national institute that all Pakistanis should be proud of. And certainly when Hillary Clinton said something, that certainly attracted a lot of attention in Pakistan," Exum says.
For years — and especially in recent months — U.S. officials have sought to persuade Pakistan that the Taliban represents a threat to its stability. Historically, Pakistan has seen neighboring India as its greatest threat.
The Agenda In Washington
The Obama administration has asked Congress to quickly approve hundreds of millions of dollars in emergency military aid for Pakistan — in addition to the billions in assistance Washington has and will continue to direct there since the Sept. 11 attacks.
Pakistan's security, and U.S. support, are sure to be on the agenda when Obama holds talks with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and Afghan President Hamid Karzai later this week at the White House.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates is somewhat hopeful that the recent Taliban offensive may have finally sounded an alarm bell in Pakistan.
"I won't go as far as optimism, but [there are] some grounds to believe there is a growing awareness in Islamabad and in Pakistan that this is a threat to them," Gates said.
But other U.S. officials say they will wait and see what the Pakistani government and military do in the coming days and months — whether they continue to pursue the Taliban or hammer out yet another peace deal with the militants.
Daniel Markey, a South Asia specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations, says the evolving situation should push the Obama administration to review its strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Now, the emphasis of that strategy is on Afghanistan. Markey says some in the Obama administration realize that Pakistan should be the focal point for new initiatives.
"They recognize this, but I think they're at least a step and a half behind on the Pakistan piece of the story," Markey says.
U.S. Lacking Leverage
Part of the problem is the U.S. has limited options in Pakistan, Exum says. He says the U.S. gained leverage in Afghanistan by deploying tens of thousands of American forces. That's not how it is in Pakistan, he says.
"We don't have any leverage in Pakistan, and I don't think anybody thinks it'd be good for us to put tens of thousands of troops on the ground in Pakistan. That would just aggravate the situation," Exum says.
The Pakistani government has resisted accepting conditions on U.S. aid and balks at what it regards as Washington meddling in its affairs. Anti-American sentiment is high in Pakistan, and the government in Islamabad is sensitive about being viewed by the populace as a puppet of the American administration.
One of the ways the Obama administration hopes to win Pakistan's cooperation and trust is to open further the financial spigots, help build its democratic institutions, boost its economy and help the military battle Islamist extremists.
But there is reluctance among some members of Congress to loosen the purse strings without conditions or assurances that Pakistan will live up to its end of the bargain.
Markey says the U.S. has two options: First, to make significantly greater investments in Pakistan, despite the frustrations. Or, step back and take another approach — containment.
But, he adds, he doesn't believe the U.S. should pursue containment, or that the time for that decision is upon the Obama administration yet.
In the meantime, the Obama administration appears to be using a carrot-and-stick approach — offering up U.S. aid and the kind of public chiding issued by Clinton — and hoping the situation in Pakistan doesn't spin further out of control.