Late last month, the chief of Pakistan's army, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, made an unpublicized visit to the White House to meet President Obama's new national security advisor, retired Marine Gen. James L. Jones Jr.
The meeting did not go well.
Speaking as one general to another, Jones pressed Kayani for a more aggressive war against Islamic militants in western Pakistan, beginning with the Swat Valley, where jihadists seized power this year. To Jones' frustration, Kayani responded only with vague assurances that he was working on the problem.
The Obama administration is only halfway through its 60-day review of U.S. policy on Afghanistan and Pakistan, but top officials already have come to an important conclusion: Pakistan, not Afghanistan, is now the central front of the war against Islamic extremism. And nuclear-armed Pakistan is in trouble. Islamist extremism is on the rise, and the government and army appear incapable of reversing the tide.
Both Osama bin Laden and Mullah Mohammed Omar, leader of Afghanistan's Taliban, run their operations out of Pakistan. And the country's homegrown Islamic militants, allied with Al Qaeda, are extending their rule across more and more territory as the pro-American civilian government seems paralyzed. Meanwhile, the army is trying to placate both the Americans and the Islamists.
So what will the Obama administration do? Send more aid, for starters. The administration plans to ask Congress for an additional $1.5 billion each year for at least five years -- to bolster a government it mistrusts.
And if aid alone can't do the trick, there are always those Hellfire missiles. The Obama administration has continued, and even escalated, a Bush administration campaign of covert airstrikes by unmanned aircraft against suspected Al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan. The architects of the CIA-run airstrike campaign are ebullient about its success. "Al Qaeda is on the ropes," the Bush administration's last terrorism czar, Juan Carlos Zarate, declared last week, coming perilously close to a "Mission Accomplished" moment.
But others disagree. "Al Qaeda is winning," countered Bruce Hoffman, dean of U.S. terrorism scholars. "They're successfully subverting [Pakistan] and consolidating a sanctuary for themselves."
The airstrikes have unquestionably disrupted the terrorist organization and made it less capable of carrying out plots like the 9/11 attacks on New York and the Pentagon. But on the ground, where the missiles have killed civilians as well as terrorists, the strikes have created anger against the United States. And there's evidence that the border strikes are driving militants deeper into Pakistan.
That's why Pakistan's future is so important to the United States: It's becoming the haven for terrorists that American troops invaded Afghanistan to destroy.
In 2001, when Bin Laden and Omar slipped across the border into Pakistan, they found shelter among sympathetic Pashtun tribesmen in the mountains. Back then, Pakistan's pro-Taliban Islamists were fragmented, feuding and relatively weak. But in the years that followed, the "Pakistani Taliban" has grown, formed new alliances, battled the Pakistani government's security forces -- and cemented its sway over the western tribal areas that have never truly been under government control.
Now branches of the Taliban are asserting power in regions outside the tribal areas, most recently in the Swat Valley, only 100 miles northwest of the capital, Islamabad. There, a Taliban faction seized power, forced the army to negotiate a cease-fire and imposed a stricter form of Islamic law.
The U.S. probably can't expect much help from Pakistan's civilian president, Asif Ali Zardari. The widower of Benazir Bhutto, who was once known as "Mr. 10%" for his reputed commissions on government contracts, is scrambling to rescue his slumping popularity among the Pakistani electorate. Last week, he insisted that the new leaders in Swat were merely "traditional local clerics." And the Obama administration wasn't impressed with Kayani's assurance last month that he's working on a strategy to reassert government authority in Swat.
"Frankenstein's monster has taken over the lab and is threatening to move into the kitchen and dining room," a U.S. official told me last week. But the Pakistanis "have not yet decided to kill the monster."
U.S. officials hope that spreading violence will sway Pakistani public opinion. Much of the country's elite -- including Zardari, a thoroughly secular figure who knows he's on the Taliban's hit list just as his wife was -- is horrified by the rise of the jihadists. But ordinary Pakistanis are divided, and a U.S.-administered poll last year found 63% opposed to cooperating with the United States. (The good news: That was down from 71%.)
The Bush administration sent more than $10 billion in military aid to Pakistan in the wake of 9/11, but most of it went to strengthen the Pakistani army's conventional forces aimed at its traditional enemy, India, rather than to counterinsurgency forces on the western frontier. Kayani and his colleagues have renewed their requests for more, including helicopters and drone aircraft. Hard bargaining lies ahead.
But the administration's main thrust will be a major increase in economic aid to build roads, bridges and schools in a desperately poor country, in hopes that such things will help the civilian government win the people's support against the Taliban.
In a year when Obama is already asking for a tax increase, another bank bailout and healthcare reform, it will be tough to sell Congress on sending billions more in aid to a country with shaky civilian leaders, balky military leaders and a population largely opposed to cooperating with the United States. But the alternatives look worse.