Though the global economy struggles in the face of the most dire economic crisis since the Great Depression and America stands a mere week away from inaugurating its’ first biracial president, the eyes of the world are intensely riveted on Israel and the Gaza Strip. While daily headlines and hourly news updates once again focus on the latest round of the generations-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its immediate implications for the soon-to-be-inaugurated Obama presidency, many in the intelligence and national security community believe that a potentially graver challenge for the fledgling administration lies farther to the east in Pakistan. How is it a once ardent ally in the War on Terror at best now appears to be drifting erratically out of Washington’s orbit and at worst could quickly become the flashpoint for an unthinkable nuclear crisis that ignites a firestorm of anti-American protests and attacks across the Islamic world? The answer is simple, really – politics. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Pakistani military strongman Pervez Musharraf saw the Bush administration’s metaphoric line in the sand of the War on Terror as an opportunity to shed his nation’s pariah status and move back into the good graces of the world’s lone superpower. At the time, an alliance between the two states was both mutually beneficial and politically expedient – much like it had been in the 1980’s when the common foe was the occupying Russian army in neighboring Afghanistan. In the process, along with the flowery praise and gushing gratitude of Neoconservatives, Islamabad would reap billions in military aid as Washington used dollars as well as missiles and unmanned drones in the fight against Al-Qaeda and its fellow radical anti-Western Islamist travelers. As the War on Terror wore on, though, Lord Palmerston’s old admonition that nations have no permanent allies, only permanent interests once again proved true. With reports indicating 9/11 mastermind Osama Bin Laden, Al-Qaeda and their Taliban allies had reconstituted themselves in Pakistan’s northwestern Federally Administered Tribal Areas, Washington naturally began pressing Islamabad to earnestly pursue the fugitives from America’s vengeance. With its’ troops bloodied and humiliated in their repeated and ultimately vain forays into the FATA, there was little doubt that the region was Pakistani sovereign territory in name only and that the Musharraf regime exercised no meaningful authority or influence over the tribes. As domestic political pressure rose and Musharraf struggled to retain some semblance of independence in the wake of growing cries that he was nothing more than a compliant puppet and had become Washington’s man in Pakistan, Islamabad became more reluctant to comply with the Bush administration’s requests or act on American intelligence. Acknowledging the domestic circumstances confronting the Musharraf regime yet unwilling to pass on opportunities to aggressively pursue actionable, time-sensitive intelligence, an unspoken agreement was struck that allowed unmanned American drones to fill strike targets Islamabad was either unwilling or unable to engage. While initially mutually acceptable, the agreement wore thin as civilian casualties mounted, plausible Pakistani deniability evaporated, reports began to surface of American helicopters breaching Pakistani airspace and public protestations over her sovereignty moved from the streets Karachi and Peshawar to the halls of government in Islamabad. Exacerbating rising tensions between the two ersatz allies was Washington’s courtship of Pakistani nemesis India as a counterbalance to an ascendant China. Entering into an agreement on nuclear cooperation with New Delhi while denying Islamabad similar consideration, the impression set in that Washington was at the least less than grateful and unappreciative of the sacrifice of Pakistani blood, treasure and political capital on its behalf. At worst, there was growing concern that America had embarked down a path with India that would ultimately leave Pakistan in its wake once its usefulness had passed – much like it had after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan n the early 90’s. As this volatile mixture percolated through the filter of domestic Pakistani politics, the Musharraf regime found itself confronted by pseudo-democratic reformists on one hand and a more aggressive and public Islamic revivalist movement on the other. These competing forces ultimately resulted in Musharraf’s resignation and the assassination by Islamist elements of democratic hopeful and former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto on her return from exile. In the wake of Musharraf’s military rule, a weak civilian government has struggled to maintain control of a deteriorating domestic political environment for the past year. Adding to Islamabad’s increasing untenable position are rising tensions with India resulting from the three day terrorist siege of targets in the economic center of Mumbai in November. Evidence collected by the Indian government – including a confession from the lone surviving commando – indicates the terrorists were trained and equipped in Pakistan. Given past involvement by Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence directorate in attempts to destabilize and attack India and historic animosities over the disputed Jammu-Kashmir region, the involvement of rogue elements within the ISI – if not the knowledge and complicity of its leadership – is not unimaginable. The concomitant tension that followed in the wake of the Mumbai siege has tapped a virulent vein of nationalism within Pakistan that while temporarily ameliorating Islamabad’s domestic position has increased pressure on it to be defiant and even belligerent in the face of New Delhi’s angered accusations. As a result, Islamabad has dispatched forces to reinforce with Indo-Pakistani frontier, many of who have been diverted from their tentative watch over the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. Thus, what awaits President-elect Obama on his inauguration next Tuesday is a Pakistan that is home to and a hot bed for recruitment for an unrepentant Osama Bin Laden and a reconstituted Al-Qaeda and Taliban; a government that is confronted by an increasingly aggressive Islamic revivalist movement; unable to exert meaningful control over significant portions of its territory; uneasily eyeing improved relations with historic patron China as a hedge against America’s growing disillusionment; fearful of a possible military coup; doubtful of its ability to control its own intelligence and security apparatus and though nuclear armed, is conventionally disadvantaged should tensions between itself and India erupt into war. Adding to this volatile situation is Pakistani and American fears should war erupt between the two decades long antagonists. Should war breakout, Islamabad is fearful it could not conventionally withstand a concentrated and impassioned Indian offensive. That being the case, haunted by the thought that its defeat would lead to the collapse of the government and the disintegration of the Pakistani state, analysts in Washington are equally concerned that Islamabad might see the use of nuclear weapons as its last chance for survival. Paranoid that Washington would seek to emasculate Pakistan of its nuclear defenses, many in Islamabad believe an outbreak of hostilities with New Delhi would be accompanied by an attempt by American special forces to seize control of its nuclear arsenal. Such a move would then be portrayed by Al-Qaeda as well as Iran as another example of America oppressing the Muslim world and denying the faithful their ability to defend themselves from their Hindu enemies. The result would be a wave of anti-American protests and violence across the Middle East and increased domestic pressure on her Arab allies. Should such a mission fail, it would almost certainly guarantee the immediate use of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons for fear of losing them. That would naturally necessitate a similar response from India. The result would be nuclear carnage involving two states with a combined population of over a billion. Should Islamabad be able to resist the urge to use its nuclear arsenal and it loses a war with India, its domestic position may well crumble completely. In such an instance, a fractured and disjointed entity may be left in its wake. Elements of the military sympathetic to the Islamic revivalists may see the opportunity to openly side with the fundamentalists against America and the western world. Such a move could result in the extension of the nuclear umbrella to Al-Qaeda and the Taliban against American attack, if not direct transmission of nuclear weapons to the groups. No doubt this would significantly impede Obama’s ability to fulfill his campaign promise to prosecute the hunt for Bin Laden regardless of where the trail and intelligence might lead. It is this collection of nightmare scenarios that tops the list of 3AM calls the President-elect Obama most fears upon taking residence in the White House next Tuesday. Thus the question arises – How can the Obama administration pursue its national security interests, expand the hunt for Osama Bin Laden and continue to reinforce its burgeoning alliance with India without further destabilizing a Pakistani government that increasingly views itself as backed into a corner both domestically and internationally with exceedingly limited options for how it might successfully extricate itself and survive in the long term? What time is it, faithful readers? Two minutes to midnight? Stay tuned for further updates as events warrant and we see if the education of Obama is a comprehensive and relaxed review or a turbulent and fevered crash course.