There are several issues in which President Bush's handoff to the incoming Obama administration is going to feel like a hospital pass. And between now and the inauguration, I am writing about some of them.
If the situation the incoming Obama administration will inherit in Pakistan did not look like a hospital pass two weeks ago, it certainly does now.
The incoming president already faced a faltering counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan and the very real possibility that the next attack on the United States was already being planned just over the border in al-Qaida's new safe haven in the Pakistani tribal areas.
Last week's attack in Mumbai, which Indian and U.S. officials now say was planned in Pakistan with an unknown degree of cooperation from rogue elements of Islamabad's military and intelligence apparatus, has added the joker of renewed Indian-Pakistani border tensions to the already stacked deck of cards U.S. policymakers must play with in the region.
Some reports this week said the Pakistani military had already frozen planned deployments of troops to the lawless Federally Administered Tribal Areas on the Afghan border in the expectation that they would be needed on the border with India if tensions flare there in the wake of the Mumbai attacks.
Doubtless Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, who visited Islamabad this week for meetings with Pakistani military and civilian leaders, urged against such a course.
But Indian officials Wednesday named a Lashkar-e-Toiba leader operating in Pakistani Kashmir as the alleged mastermind of the plot, and other reports said the attackers had been trained at identifiable facilities in the disputed region.
There have even been calls in some quarters of India for New Delhi to invoke the Bush doctrine and strike unilaterally at suspected terrorist targets in Pakistan. Standing beside U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice Wednesday, Indian Minister for External Affairs Pranab Mukherjee took no options off the bale. "What action will be taken by the (Indian) government will depend on the response we have from the Pakistan authorities," he said, referring to Indian demands for the handover of Lashkar-e-Toiba leaders and a crackdown on cross-border activity by extremist groups in Kashmir.
But these groups have long been used by elements of the Pakistani military and intelligence leadership as proxies in their confrontation with India over Kashmir. Their leaders know far too much to ever be handed over alive.
And meanwhile, bellicose rhetoric from irresponsible commentators in India is helping those in Pakistan who want the nation's attention focused on its border with India, rather than the Afghan frontier, and the Pakistani military looking to its traditional enemy, rather than the counterinsurgency campaign in the tribal areas.
"One of the effects" of the Mumbai attack "is going to be drawing attention to that other border," al-Qaida specialist Peter Bergen told United Press International. "Whether that was part of the plan, I don't know," he added.
The outline of the Obama administration's key strategic problem in Pakistan is discernible behind the immediate crisis. Whatever the civilian government's policy may be, there are elements of the Pakistani military and intelligence establishment that see India as a much greater threat than armed Islamic extremists. Indeed, if India is the strategic filter, their interests actually align with those of the extremists in this kind of crisis.
Whatever role Pakistani military or intelligence agencies might or might not have played in the Mumbai attacks, it is that strategic convergence that makes the U.S.-Pakistani alliance so troublesome and ensures that Islamabad's role in the war on terror continues to be ambiguous in practice, if not in policy.
One possible way to finesse this problem, which the Bush administration to its credit eventually adopted, is to emphasize the non-military aspects of a counterinsurgency strategy in FATA: a long-term development plan for the region that aims at its increasing integration into the economic and social fabric of the nation.
Indeed, on that desolate border the long game is the only one. Skeptics of a military strategy on both sides of the border have long pointed out that the region has never been conquered. Like Rene Goscinny and Albert Uderzo's Gauls, Asterix and Obelix, the fiercely independent Pashtun tribesmen who live there are indomitable.
But the terrorist networks that have established themselves in the FATA are increasingly linked with the extremists based in Kashmir, which is why, after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Pakistan was called upon to make a strategic choice to abandon its extremist allies among the Taliban and join the U.S.-led war on terrorism.
While former President Pervez Musharraf claimed to have made that choice, the record shows the commitment of the Pakistani military, and in particular the Inter-Services Intelligence agency, to have been spotty at best.
In some ways the strategic choice that the country must make after the Mumbai attacks is even more profound. Pakistan has fought three wars with India, and the confrontation with its larger neighbor has been one of the pillars of strategic thinking there since the state was founded.
Political theorists are fond of the proposition that democracies tend not to go to war with each other. India is the world's largest functioning democracy. Pakistan has a much spottier record but has just rejoined the club of democratic nations with a new government that seems genuinely committed to its membership.
The only certainty is that the new administration has its work cut out for it.