WASHINGTON -- Of all the problems confronting the Obama administration, none is trickier than Pakistan -- a nuclear power that has a war in Afghanistan on its western border, a tense confrontation with India on its eastern border and a deadly insurgency at home from Muslim militants who want to topple the pro-American government.
At the crux of all three conflicts are the Pakistani army and its intelligence service, known as the ISI. The army's pervasive power is summed up in a Pakistani joke: "All countries have armies, but here, an army has a country."
The challenge for Pakistan and its neighbors was dramatized by the Nov. 26 terrorist attack on the Indian metropolis of Mumbai. The assault on two luxury hotels, a train station and a Jewish cultural center left 165 dead and 304 injured, according to the official Indian count. The attackers were highly trained and used sophisticated GPS navigation devices to find their targets.
"This was a conspiracy launched from Pakistan," argues a detailed dossier prepared by the Indian government and distributed to officials in Washington and other capitals. It makes chilling reading -- page after page of communications intercepts, interrogation records and forensic evidence. The dossier argues that the 10 terrorists were trained in Pakistan by a militant group, Lashkar-i-Taiba, that Indian officials believe was originally created by the ISI.
Between the lines of the dossier, but not stated explicitly, is the Indian government's belief that some officers of the Pakistani army and the ISI were aware of the Mumbai attacks. Try to get your mind around that one -- the Pakistani army, with its stockpile of nuclear weapons, may include officers linked to a terrorist attack on the country's neighbor.
The American official who monitors Pakistan most closely is Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He has formed a close working relationship with Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani, the chief of staff of the Pakistani army, and has traveled seven times to Pakistan over the past year to meet with him and Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, whom Kiyani installed last year to head the ISI.
I talked this week with Mullen about the situation in Pakistan. I began by asking about Indian suspicions that elements of the Pakistani army were involved in the Mumbai attacks.
"I've tried ... really hard to understand Pakistan over the last year-plus, and it's much more opaque than it is transparent," Mullen answered. Part of that opacity, Pentagon sources explain, results from the Pakistani military's culture of delegating authority, so that top commanders don't always know about contacts by lower-ranking officers. As one official puts it, "it can sometimes be difficult to figure out who did what to whom."
Mullen said that Kiyani and his intelligence chief, Pasha, "have committed very specifically to change the culture in ISI. ... They recognize that they've got to get out of where they've been, which is in support of these ... militants, to try to make deals, and that they've got to move beyond that. But that's not going to happen overnight."
The U.S. commander said he measures Kiyani by whether he "does ... what he tells me he's going to do." And he said Kiyani has delivered.
Mullen noted, for example, that Kiyani has ordered Pakistani troops to combat Taliban insurgents in the western frontier region of Bajaur, where they had been reluctant to fight before. Kiyani also has doubled the pay of the Frontier Corps, the constabulary force that operates along the Afghanistan border. And he has picked a charismatic Pashtun officer as the new commander for the Frontier Corps.
"All of those things ... are very positive," Mullen said. "And the Frontier Corps has had what I would argue is incredible success in a very short period of time."
"In my ideal world," said Mullen, India and Pakistan would work together to fight terrorists and "figure out a way to solve Kashmir," a Himalayan region claimed by both countries. But Kashmir, he cautioned, would be "a pretty big bite in the apple right now."
Mullen said he wouldn't discuss Afghanistan in detail until President Obama has made decisions about strategy there. Although more U.S. troops may be needed in the short run, he said, the key to lasting security will be better governance and economic development.
"I don't have enough troops in the United States military to make the difference that needs to be made" in Afghanistan, Mullen warned. "Afghans have got to lead this. It has got to have an Afghan face."