Like its towering mountains, Afghanistan looms as a serious security threat, with Taliban attacks on US and NATO forces there rising precipitously. But the road to improvement starts in Pakistan, and the route is as winding as the Khyber Pass highway that connects the two countries.
Al Qaeda has regrouped in Pakistan's lawless tribal region on the border, reaching pre-9/11 strength. Taliban militants also find safe haven in this remote region and cross regularly into Afghanistan.
This growing hornets' nest poses a risk not only to Afghanistan and NATO forces, but to the world as a whole. Islamist terrorists in the border area are hostile to the newly elected secular government in Pakistan. Remember that Pakistan has the world's second-largest Muslim population and is equipped with nuclear weapons.
Thankfully, Washington is starting to pay more attention to this part of the world. Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama visited Afghanistan over the weekend, and last week, Republican candidate John McCain elevated the region's importance by speaking extensively about it. Both recognize the critical role that Pakistan plays.
Meanwhile, Gen. David Petraeus is talking with Pakistani officials about how to better wage a counterinsurgency in the tribal areas. And last week, the leaders of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee pushed a bipartisan bill that provides a far more balanced US approach to Pakistan.
The bill, sponsored by Joseph Biden (D) of Delaware and Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana, would more than triple development aid to Pakistan over the next five years and aim to extend it for another five. It would put the American contribution to roads, secular schooling, and clinics ahead of military aid.
America has poured more than $7 billion into military aid to Pakistan over the past six years, with little result. In the bill, the military aid is contingent on Pakistan making a concerted effort to put down the terrorist groups.
By emphasizing development aid that won't dry up at the next US dispute with Pakistan, the senators hope to rebuild Pakistani trust – and build up a poor region, helping to drive out extremist Islam.
Many Pakistanis resent America's support for the military rule of Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who was spurned in February elections. They blame the US for the growing strength of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, saying it failed to finish them off at Tora Bora in 2001 and then got distracted in Iraq.
Passing the bill can help reverse this attitude, much as US aid for Pakistanis in the 2005 earthquake created a surge of goodwill toward America. But the legislation, which has support from the White House, must be viewed as just one rounding of the bend on the way to a reduced terrorist threat.
Other challenges include a Pakistani government in disarray; a triangle of suspicion involving Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India; and Pakistani security forces ill-suited to counterinsurgency. All of these factors contribute to Pakistan's intermittent and ineffective dealings with the terrorist infestation.
The US is making a more serious effort with Pakistan. A week from today, Pakistan's new prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gillani, is to meet with President Bush. Mr. Gillani should acknowledge this US effort and show that he, too, is more serious about the border region.