Much as the 9/11 terror attacks quickly focused the Bush administration on its relations with Islamabad, last week's terrorist assault on Mumbai (formerly Bombay) only elevates the central preoccupation that Pakistan poses for President-elect Obama.
Already, the deteriorating stability of the world's only Muslim-majority nuclear power has figured in virtually every aspect of the incoming administration's national-security portfolio: from the war in Afghanistan, which is on Pakistan's western flank, to relations with nuclear rival India. If anything, the Mumbai attacks and the growing evidence of involvement by Pakistan-based militants will raise the urgency of developing a new approach to the Pakistan problem.
"If there's any silver lining out of this, it may be that Pakistan moves to the top of the next administration's urgent list," says Daniel Markey, a former State Department expert on South Asia now at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. Only perhaps after Iraq, Pakistan "outweighs the other challenges [because it] poses the most significant threat of global terrorism," he adds.
The stepped-up attention to Pakistan is expected to take a new direction under the Obama administration, with a focus on development and civilian-institution-building projects supplanting the Bush administration's multibillion-dollar relationship with the military-led government of the former president, Pervez Musharraf. Vice President-elect Joseph Biden in particular has advocated, from his chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a threefold increase in aid to fund a new long-term program aimed at weaning Pakistan's more restive regions from militant control.
The redirection of emphasis would seem to mirror the outlook of Pakistan's new civilian president, Asif Ali Zardari, who recently characterized the battle against the country's Taliban and other militant groups as a "war ... to win the hearts and minds of the people."
But if such a program is to get off the ground, rising India-Pakistan tensions after the Mumbai attacks will have to be addressed first. Doing so could further two aims: avoiding a show of force by the Pakistani military that could hobble or even topple the country's extremely weak civilian government, and keeping Pakistan from directing attention away from its nascent antimilitant effort along the border with Afghanistan toward the border with India.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was in New Delhi Wednesday with two messages. She urged the Indian government to practice restraint in the face of mounting evidence linking the Mumbai terrorists to Pakistan-based groups. She also urged the Pakistani government to deliver on its promise of cooperation in the investigation.
"I have said that Pakistan needs to act with resolve and urgency and cooperate fully and transparently," Secretary Rice said at a New Delhi press conference. "I know, too, this is a time when cooperation of all parties who have any information is really required."
Meanwhile, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was in Islamabad, Pakistan, where he urged authorities to investigate "any and all possible ties to groups in Pakistan" – a clear if veiled reference to suspected links between the Mumbai terrorists and former or current Pakistani security forces.
The Bush administration knows the debilitating effect that rising tensions between the two South Asian nuclear rivals can have on antiterror efforts.
A 2001 bombing of the Indian Parliament – allegedly carried out by a Pakistan-based Islamist extremist organization with support from within Pakistan's powerful but murky intelligence organization – led to a mobilization of forces along both sides of the India-Pakistan border. That gave pro-Al Qaeda elements in Pakistan's western provinces greater freedom and time to establish their hold on territory bordering Afghanistan.
"Both countries amassed troops on their common border for about a year, and with a lot of sustained effort, the Bush administration was able to mitigate the tensions, assuage concerns, and make sure that things didn't spin out of control into armed conflict," says Malou Innocent, a South Asia expert at the Cato Institute in Washington.
"But it was also a year that attention was pulled away from the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, and that's certainly a top concern for the US now," she adds.
Indeed, inciting tensions between the two rivals – and fogging Pakistan's focus on militants in the western tribal areas – may have been the chief aims of the Mumbai operation. "It would hardly be surprising if the masterminds behind the [Mumbai terrorists] weren't aiming at raising tensions between India and Pakistan all along," says Mr. Markey of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Making sure such a scheme is not successful will be the first order of business for the United States – under President Bush and Mr. Obama. But beyond that, Markey says, the Obama administration will face the same tough questions about Pakistan's intelligence community and military and their ties to militant forces – even as it works to strengthen a pro-Western civilian government.
"You have to have something in place that looks like the Zardari government to even contemplate the shift towards development and economic projects," he says. Another military coup against a civilian government "would set back the partnership by perhaps years and throw a wrench in any plans for a new direction."