This election cycle, msnbc.com is presenting a weekly series, Briefing Book: Issues ’08, assessing issues and controversies that the next president must confront.
This week, we look at U.S. relations with Pakistan, a nuclear-armed country crucial to ongoing anti-terror operations in Afghanistan.
Why it matters
As of July 2008, over 500 U.S. military personnel have been killed serving in Afghanistan, and after nearly seven years in the country, troop deployment has reached its highest level ever: 36,000.
Efforts to locate Osama bin Laden and battle Taliban forces have taken troops deep into the mountainous region that separates Afghanistan and Pakistan.
American and Pakistani forces have had mixed results in their attempts to root out insurgents in these tribal areas.
There’s also the recent news of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf’s resignation — a move that could signal the termination of the country’s counterterrorism alliance with the United States.
Despite this alliance, the Bush administration has long voiced concern over Islamabad’s willingness or ability to clamp down on extremists within its own borders.
“You can make a strong argument that Pakistan has the potential to be just as big, if not a bigger, foreign policy challenge for the next president that either Iraq or Iran,” said Roger Cressey, an NBC News analyst.
“The reality is that al-Qaida has created a safe haven in Pakistan that in some respects is more effective than what they had in Afghanistan before 9/11,” he added.
Cressey said that the intelligence community is "very worried" about the training of new al-Qaeda operatives in Pakistan, "because they can't track these people, and who knows what they're intending to do once they leave Pakistan."
While a presidential candidate, Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Joe Biden said he feared Pakistan more than Iran, given the potential for its nuclear weapons to fall into the wrong hands.
“What is the greatest threat to the United States of America? 2.6 kilograms of highly enriched uranium in Tehran or an out of control Pakistan? It’s not close,” the senator said during an MSNBC debate in October.
Where the candidates stand
Barack Obama made waves early in his candidacy, when he said that as president, he would unilaterally strike known terrorists in Pakistan, with or without permission from Islamabad.
“There are terrorists hole up in those mountains, that murdered 3,000 Americans,” the Illinois senator said during a foreign policy speech in August 2007.
“If we have actionable intelligence about high-valued terrorist targets and President Musharraf will not act, we will.”
Obama caught flak from presidential contenders on both sides of the aisle for this speech.
At a debate in February, then-Democratic challenger Sen. Hillary Clinton chastised Obama for the comment, saying, “He basically threatened to bomb Pakistan, which I don’t think was a particularly wise position to take.”
And as John McCain emerged as the likely Republican presidential nominee in late February, he too attacked Obama’s Pakistan position.
“The best idea is not to broadcast what you’re going to do. That’s naïve,” said the Arizona senator. “You don’t broadcast that you are going to bomb a country that is a sovereign nation.”
But Obama’s position of unilateral strikes within Pakistan’s borders may not be completely out of line with current U.S. policy.
The Bush administration has reportedly been carrying out Predator airstrikes on alleged al-Qaida targets within Pakistan.
The Washington Post reported one such attack in January and the Department of Defense confirmed an airstrike in June. That incident killed 11 Pakistanis.
Obama is also critical of the $10 billion of military financial aid given to Pakistan by the Bush administration since Sept. 11.
He believes those funds are used to give Islamabad an edge in border disputes with neighboring India, rather than aiding the fight against al-Qaida.
“If we are going to provide military assistance to Pakistan, we should at least expect that that money is effectively deployed to deal with the most important security threat we face,” he said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” in July.
With regard to the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, both candidates have supported increasing the number of troops there.
In a July op-ed article in The New York Times, Obama called for the addition of two combat brigades in Afghanistan, writing that “the Taliban is resurgent and al-Qaida has a safe haven” in the area.
The additional troops would be provided for by a proposed drawdown of forces in Iraq.
The day following Obama’s op-ed, McCain, for the first time during his campaign, said he would send additional troops to Afghanistan.
“Our commanders on the ground in Afghanistan say that they need three additional brigades,” he said, adding that recent security improvements in Iraq will allow for a reallocation of resources.
The Arizona senator indicated he would be open to the additional troops coming from NATO, rather than exclusively from the United States.
McCain also called for the appointment of an “Afghanistan czar” in his administration, “whose sole mission will be to ensure we bring the war in Afghanistan to a successful end.”
With news of Musharraf’s resignation, both candidates have expressed a willingness to work with Pakistan’s new government on anti-terror efforts.
“I have long said that the central terrorist threat to the United States lies in northwest Pakistan and Afghanistan, and not Iraq,” said Obama. “U.S. policy must focus on assuring that all elements of Pakistan's government are resolute in shutting down the safe havens for al Qaeda and the Taliban.”
For his part, McCain said, “The situation in Pakistan's frontier regions requires immediate and continued attention, and I hope that the elections for President Musharraf's successor will serve to reconcile the Pakistani people behind a leader who can solidify their government internally.”
Though both candidates say they will increase troops in Afghanistan, there are no guarantees that this will help locate al-Qaida pockets in the region.
Also, there are questions about how cooperative a Musharraf-less government will be when it comes to aiding U.S. military efforts.
“What is significant is the amount of complaints from the administration you’re seeing in the press about the Pakistani government not doing enough to deal with the al-Qaida presence inside their borders,” said Cressey.
“For the next president, this could be the most pressing issue they face in their first year in office.”
But regardless of troop levels or Pakistan cooperation, Cressey believes that U.S. airstrikes on the region will continue.
“No matter who’s elected in November, the Predator will remain a key part of the next president’s al-Qaida strategy,” he said, adding, “It has to, because it’s the best way to take out al-Qaida leaders in the Pakistan safe haven.”
Cressey continued, “The troop increase will be important, but will not help us with the single biggest threat we now face — the growth of the al-Qaida sanctuary inside Pakistan.”
Potential pitfalls for the next president
During a meeting with Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani in early August, Bush administration officials voiced concerns over the government’s control over the Inter-Services Intelligence spy agency.
Some operatives in the ISI are suspected of having ties with Pakistani militants.
Earlier this month, The New York Times reported that American intelligence claimed to have evidence that members of the ISI helped plan the July bombing of India’s embassy in Afghanistan.
“There’s real concern that the ISI is conducting activities in Afghanistan that are completely at odds with U.S. interests,” said Cressey. “Pakistan has always viewed Afghanistan as part of their ‘sphere of influence,’ and the ISI will do what it believes is in Islamabad’s interest, regardless of its impact of U.S. policies.”
“The real challenge is the next president can say anything he wants to try to pressure Pakistan to rein in ISI activities, but it’s unlikely to lead to any real change,” he added.
In addition, the Afghan government publicly accused the ISI of organizing a failed plot to assassinate President Hamid Karzai in April.
These accusations and events could further complicate relations in the region and make it harder for the next president to continue ongoing U.S. efforts against al-Qaida.