Barack Obama assumes the U.S. presidency at a time of tension and uncertainty in South Asia. Pakistan is trying to allay heightened concerns in the West and among its next-door neighbors that it is a haven for terrorists, while Afghanistan is beset by a strengthened insurgency. Experts say the new U.S. administration will need to balance its dealings with Kabul and Islamabad.
Analysts said Barack Obama must walk a tightrope of pressuring Pakistan to get tough on the terrorists hiding within its borders without undermining the country's newly minted democratic government, while shoring up the fragile Afghan government.
Taliban and al-Qaida fighters have been using Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or FATA, as a sanctuary and staging ground from which to strike U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan. Attacks were up sharply in 2008 over the previous year.
According to published reports, the United States has responded with increased strikes by unmanned Predator drone aircraft and at least some covert cross-border attacks in FATA by elite special operations units. U.S. officials neither confirm nor deny these reports.
During the presidential campaign, Barack Obama sparked controversy, particularly in Pakistan, when he said he would be willing attack Taliban and al-Qaida sanctuaries inside Pakistan.
"If Pakistan is unwilling or unable to hunt down bin Laden and take him out, then we should," said Obama.
US Anti-Terrorism Not Popular in Pakistan
Public opinion surveys have shown that U.S. anti-terrorism measures are not popular in Pakistan, nor are Pakistani efforts to cooperate with the United States.
Maleeha Lodhi, a former Pakistani ambassador to the United States and Britain, said Mr. Obama's election changed attitudes in Pakistan - at least for now.
"In Pakistan, it's very interesting to see that President-elect Obama's victory seems to have temporarily trumped the traditional cynicism of the Pakistani public about its relationship with the United States. It's been trumped temporarily - that's an important word - by a sense of hope and anticipation that perhaps the new administration will bring a new approach which will help to address many of the issues," she said.
Pakistan's ISI and the Taliban
Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, the ISI, helped create the Taliban in the 1990s to gain influence in Afghanistan. How much, if any, official Pakistani assistance the Taliban now receives from the ISI is a matter of controversy among analysts
Pakistan denies sponsoring any insurgent groups. Maleeha Lodhi said Pakistan is being unfairly blamed for Western policy failures in Afghanistan.
"Really a series of strategic errors, lack of clear objective, military missteps and misplaced priorities pushed the war and exported the insurgency into Pakistan. There is no question about that. Pakistan pre-9/11 [pre-September 11, 2001] did not have these kinds of issues that it's confronted within its border regions," she said.
Afghanistan's ambassador to the United States, Said Tayeb Jawad, said the U.S. did not finish the job of eradicating the Taliban in 2001.
"What the international community did in 2001, they pushed the Taliban aside. They neither eliminated the Taliban nor completely defeated them. They pushed them into the countryside; they pushed them into Pakistan. And they had the opportunity outside Afghanistan, and particularly in Pakistan, to regroup, retrain and come back," he said.
Ambassador Jawad said Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari seems much more committed to battling terrorism than his predecessor, General Pervez Musharraf. But, he added, Pakistan's army appears to be more preoccupied with the country's traditional nemesis, India.
"The problem here is that we have a civilian government here that is committed to fighting extremism, but with limited capabilities. We have an army that is capable of fighting, but with very little commitment to do so because they perceive other enemies as more important than extremism in Pakistan," he said.
Recalibrating, from Iraq to Afghanistan
President-elect Obama has said he wants to pull some troops out of Iraq and send them to Afghanistan.
Ambassador Jawad said more troops, from the United States or its NATO allies, would be welcome. But he added that they should be properly equipped and free of the restrictions that some NATO countries impose on their forces on where they can engage in combat.
The ambassador said the Karzai government will continue to pursue a parallel political strategy of trying to negotiate peace with at least some Taliban elements. However, he said that outside support for the Taliban has to stop, if talks are to be successful.
"We know that the government is trying very hard to make this happen. But if the sources of foreign support cease to be delivered to the Taliban, we will see a lot more willingness on their part to quit violence and to join the political process," Jawad said.
The terrorism issue is further compounded by Indian charges that the recent attacks in Mumbai that killed more than 170 people were planned by radical Kashmiri Islamists operating out of Pakistan.