First, make no mistake: Pakistan is critically vital to the security of the region and to the United States. Success in Afghanistan cannot be achieved without success in Pakistan. Should an Islamic or Taliban revolution take hold or a civil war break out, violence and instability will not be easily contained. The Iranian Revolution of 1979, to some observers, is a chilling historical lesson of what might happen in Pakistan, an outcome made frightening by the reality of nuclear weapons.
Second, Pakistan faces dual security and economic crises. The insurgency is serious and spreading, although reports that the Taliban were or could be at the gates of Islamabad were ludicrous. The economic crisis can be resolved by financial aid. However, the world has been disinclined to commit the necessary resources. Pakistani leaders rightly ask that if the United States is prepared to spend trillions of dollars to bail out Detroit, AIG and the banks, why it is not prepared to spend a tiny fraction of that amount to save Pakistan, which is acknowledged to be one of America's most vital national-security interests.
Third, in the face of these crises, the fledgling Pakistani government has not proven itself able to govern adequately. It is perceived as weak and torn by rivalries and personal animosities. Further, despite repeated assurances to the contrary, American officials are now gravely worried by the seeming reluctance or inability of the Pakistani army to confront the enemy. As a result, many in the United States mistakenly believe that by courting former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif as an alternative leader for Pakistan, the chances for striking a peace deal with insurgent elements is increased.
These realities form the basis for the excruciating paradox that is at the heart of the Pakistani crises. Based on history and experience, it is easy to conclude that the United States has little to no influence on Pakistan and hence there is no way to prevent these crises from exploding. Therefore, the extreme pessimism reflected in Washington across a very broad cross section of government and private-sector commentators is understandable. The final pieces of evidence for this pessimism were the Swat agreement, approved by the Parliament that buckled to Taliban demands, and the Taliban advance into Buner, some 60 miles from Islamabad. Meanwhile, Pakistanis believe Washington has hyped the danger for its own internal reasons.
Fortunately, the Swat agreement will fail, giving the government a great opportunity to change course and re-engage the army. And the Taliban in Buner probably number in the hundreds at most. Still, the profound differences over threat perceptions are a stumbling block and must be overcome.
Conditions in Pakistan are not yet desperate, a view that few will accept in Washington, although the intelligence community reportedly advised Obama that Pakistan is not in imminent danger of collapse. But if we do not act collectively and decisively now, then the current pessimism will become self-fulfilling, whether it takes months or years to play out. This will require great courage on the part of Obama and Zardari to recognize what must be done and then to do it.
For Obama, the United States must understand that resources to the tune of many tens of billions of dollars will be needed along with timely deployment of equipment to fight the insurgencies, including transfer of drones so that the Pakistanis can take on some responsibility for attacks in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas against insurgents. And Zardari must realize that unless he can convince his government and the army to take concrete steps to include redeployment of tens of thousands or even 100,000 troops from the Indian border west, imposition of real oversight to guarantee transparency in using those resources and greater access to demonstrate the security of its nuclear weapons to the United States and others, this will not work.
Immediately following the attack on Pearl Harbor, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill journeyed to spend December at the White House with President Franklin Roosevelt and strategize over the war. Obama and Zardari probably will have an hour with each other and a total of two days of wider discussions. Hence, their short meeting must focus on the heart of the matter, to use a phrase from the Roosevelt days.
The heart of the matter is recognizing that both sides must take decisive action if both are to succeed. If that can be done, they will. If not, the world will be a far more dangerous place.
(Harlan Ullman is a senior adviser at the Atlantic Council. His last book was "America's Promise Restored: Preventing Culture, Crusade and Partisanship from Wrecking Our Nation.")
(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)