There are signs that Pakistan’s leaders finally are waking up to the threat that faces them from the Islamic jihadists who poured into the untamed provinces bordering Afghanistan six years ago and have spread their poison on fertile ground.
For most of those years, Pakistan’s military and government turned a blind eye to the fact that the leaders of al Qaeda and of Afghanistan’s Taliban not only had found shelter on their territory, but also were beginning to realize that Pakistan, with its nuclear arsenal, is a much juicier target than Afghanistan.
America’s top commander in that volatile region, Adm. William J. Fallon of the U.S. Central Command, has said that the increased terrorist violence in Pakistan in recent months has convinced Pakistan's leaders that they need to address the problem more intensively.
Fallon said the Pakistanis now realize that they have some real internal problems. Until now, they considered the al Qaeda and Taliban terrorists a problem for the U.S. and Afghanistan and only a distant threat to themselves.
The admiral said he believes that the Pakistanis are now more open to American suggestions that U.S. troops help train and advise the Pakistani army and border police.
Whether cozying up to the Pentagon at this stage will help an already beleaguered government in transition from military rule to a civilian democracy or only stoke the anger of Pakistan’s own Muslim fundamentalists remains to be seen, however.
It also could be too little, too late.
Meanwhile, things aren’t going all that well across the border in Afghanistan, either.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates has approved a modest deployment of U.S. reinforcements to Afghanistan, ordering a full brigade of some 3,200 Marines into the fight and raising the total number of American troops there to fewer than 30,000.
Gates acted after it became clear that our NATO allies were resisting requests to increase the number of troops they've provided for Afghanistan duty, and that some of the NATO troops that have been sent have little or no training in counter-insurgency warfare and others are under orders to avoid taking casualties.
U.S. commanders have been asking for reinforcements for months as Taliban insurgents ("resurgents" might be more appropriate) have grown ever bolder and more aggressive, seeming to shrug off the heavy casualties they suffer from U.S. warplanes when they operate in the open. They have no trouble getting replacements and reinforcements from their Pakistani sanctuaries.
The fear is that spring will bring an even greater Taliban offensive, backed by IED’s (improvised explosive devices) and suicide bombers — al Qaeda tactics tested, refined and exported from the war in Iraq.
All this because the Bush administration started taking its eye off the ball in Afghanistan in late 2001, siphoning off money, equipment and manpower for the invasion of Iraq. That's translated into penny-pinching the rebuilding of badly damaged or destroyed infrastructure in a country that's been at war for three decades, and a very slow standup of Afghan army and police forces capable of dealing with the insurgents.
Last week, suicide bombers attacked a luxury hotel that caters to foreigners and wealthy Afghanis in the capital of Kabul, underscoring the boldness of the Taliban resurgents and offering a glimpse of what's to come when the snows melt in the high mountain passes that are the guerrilla highways between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
There’s nothing like benign neglect of a dangerous place to make more trouble than you ever thought possible. By early 2002, we'd toppled the Taliban government and had them and their al Qaeda guests on the run. But before the mission was accomplished, our leaders turned away from Job One to prepare to invade Iraq and topple Saddam Hussein.
Now, if losing or fighting to a draw in Iraq would be a disaster, consider what the return to power of the Taliban in Afghanistan would mean. Then consider what it would mean for the world’s only superpower to watch helplessly as Pakistan falls into the hands of jihadists allied with al Qaeda and the Taliban.
That’s the real nightmare that should be disturbing the sleep of President George W. Bush and whoever hopes to succeed him.