Shortly after Pakistan's new president made his first speech to the country's parliament, a massive explosion ripped through the capital's political district. The Sept. 20 truck bombing decimated the Marriott hotel, killing 54 people including three Americans and the Czech ambassador-a grim reminder of the growing volatility in a country that has been a key United States ally in the war on terror. "We are in the eye of the storm," Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari said after his inauguration. "I consider that an opportunity."
But this is not just any storm, according to some political analysts, but more ominously, a perfect storm brewing over nuclear-armed Pakistan and its neighbors in Southeast Asia. With coalition forces losing ground in Afghanistan, all eyes are on Pakistan and its porous border in the north-a passageway for al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters to cross into Afghanistan. Add that to Pakistan's fledgling economy, increased terror attacks, new leadership after eight years of autocratic rule, and cross-border incursions into Pakistan by U.S. troops, and the mix could be a recipe for even greater chaos.
Just as Iraq is showing signs ofstability, violence in Afghanistan has increased by 30 percent in the past year. On Oct. 1, the top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan requested 10,000 additional forces "as quickly as possible," citing a growing insurgency due in part to foreign fighters-including Chechens, Saudis, and Europeans-streaming into Afghanistan through Pakistan. "We're in a very tough fight," Gen. David McKiernan said. "The idea that it might get worse before it getsbetter is certainly a possibility."
The general also requested additional measures to boost the Afghan government and economy, but security remained a top priority. A recent United Nations report noted an increase in attacks against aid workers in 2008: At least 30 have been killed and 92 abducted since the beginning of the year.
Many strategists have warned that Afghanistan cannot be won without a successful campaign to root out terrorist camps in northern Pakistan, and growing skepticism over Pakistan's commitment to pursue militants has created a daunting dilemma for the United States: Should it risk the ire of Pakistanis and launch its own ground assault on the country's lawless border region with Afghanistan or should it allow Pakistan to fine-tune its tactics and wait formeasurable signs of progress?
Already, several U.S.-staged ground force attacks into Pakistan last month-albeit brief and minor-have angered the country's leadership. Pakistan's parliament warned that its army will "repel such attacks in the future with full force." Political analyst and Pakistan expert Shuja Nawaz says these incursions are a tactical error on the part of the United States that could be used to garner sympathy for extremists.
"It's a sensitive issue for any country that has sovereignty over its borders. The U.S. should realize that," Nawaz said. "It's not as if attacking Taliban bases in Pakistan is going to resolve the problem inside Afghanistan. It's not just the border region. Almost one half of the country is almost no-go."
Farhana Ali, a terrorism expert at the RAND Corporation, agrees that U.S. troops should stay out of Pakistan-at least overtly. "They certainly don't want American boots on the ground, and I think rightfully so. I would hate to see another American soldier killed in a country that is so unfamiliar in terms of its terrain and rough landscape." However, unlike Nawaz, she believes Pakistan and Afghanistan are inextricably linked, noting that Pakistan-riddled with a host of pressing problems-cannot battle the growing ranks of extremists within its borders on its own.
Suicide attacks have increased dramatically in Pakistan since the siege of Islamabad's Red Mosque in July 2007. More than 100 people died during the army attack on militants holed up in the radical mosque. Since then nearly 1,200 Pakistanis-primarily civilians-have died in 88 suicide attacks, including the blast that killed Benazir Bhutto last December. "The escalation of violence has really become intolerable for Pakistanis," Ali said.
Ali, who comes from a family of Pakistani military leaders, said she recently spoke with a Pakistani military colonel who expressed fears of an extremist takeover of Islamabad. "I've never heard this kind of fear expressed before-that the extremists could actually come into the major cities," she said. The UN recently ordered children of its international staff to leave Islamabad amid growing signs of instability, and concrete barriers are being erected in high-risk areas of the capital.
In August Pakistan launched amilitary offensive against Taliban and al-Qaeda militants in the Bajur tribal region, but its effectiveness is in question. Close to 600 families fled the region in the last two weeks of September alone as a result of the fighting, creating 20,000 refugees and the potential for growing sympathy toward militants skilled in public-relations campaigns.
U.S. generals have commended the Pakistani offensive but say they have yet to see a decrease in the number of insurgents crossing the border into Afghanistan. And some intelligence officials say there are Taliban sympathizers embedded in the Pakistani army who are leaking sensitive information to militants hiding in the dark recesses of the Pakistani border.
Despite his checkered past-he spent several years in jail on corruption charges-many Pakistanis believe President Zardari can lead the country through these stormy times and restore a political system marred by almost a decade of military dictatorship. Since inheriting the leadership of the Pakistan Peoples Party from his wife-the late Benazir Bhutto-and ascending to the presidency following the resignation of Pervez Musharraf, he has promised to cut back presidential powers.
Already he has made efforts at diplomacy with the United States, but not all Pakistanis look favorably upon such endeavors. Recent polls suggest 90 percent of Pakistanis have an unfavorable view of the United States.
Economic woes have also plagued Pakistan: Rising energy costs and instability have led to a drop in investments. Legislation considered by the U.S. Congress that would have tripled economic aid to Pakistan is now unlikely to pass in light of the economic crisis on the home front.
Despite regional tensions, Ali believes U.S.-Pakistani relations will remain intact and says the Pakistani military generals she has spoken to acknowledge their need for American assistance in the battle to curb insurgents. Coalition forces appear willing to discuss thepossibilities. "There are mutual border security concerns that both the Afghans and the Pakistanis have," Gen. McKiernan said. "So the more we can work together to approach those concerns, the better off we all are."
But these collaborative efforts are best done covertly, Ali says, noting the complex web of perceptions in this part of the world: "For years our special forces have been in Pakistan, and there've been a number of covert operations that are happening. Certain things should remain covert as opposed to being in the public eye."
While political analysts are optimistic that downward trends in both Pakistan and Afghanistan can be reversed, the cost of failure is high: "Unstable Pakistan in one of the world's toughest and most dangerous neighborhoods will mean that there will be instability in Afghanistan," Nawaz said. "And quite likely the instability will reverberate into South Asia and the relationship with India and Kashmir." That is why it's important to get it right in Pakistan.