The terrorist attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore has exacerbated US concerns about Pakistan, causing a public admission from President Barack Obama that the situation in the Af-Pak region has deteriorated.
The term Af-Pak has been coined by Mr Obama’s policy makers who are now working overtime to formulate a new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, which they regard as the most dangerous places on earth.
‘The truth is that the situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated. The safe havens for al Qaeda remain in the frontier regions of Pakistan,’ said President Obama when asked to comment on Tuesday’s terrorist attack in Lahore.
Mr Obama is expected to announce a new strategy for the two countries before the Nato summit, which is scheduled to take place between April 3 and 5 in Strasbourg.
Last week, the Obama administration invited senior military and political leaders from Pakistan and Afghanistan to consult them on a strategy that will directly concern the two countries.
This week, the US government decided to widen these consultations and is sending Vice President Joe Biden to the Nato headquarters next week for this purpose. He will consult US allies on Afghanistan and Pakistan and report back to President Obama.
On Wednesday, the US administration took a clear position on Afghanistan, issuing a statement that seeks to persuade Afghanistan to hold general elections in August, three months after the original schedule. The statement makes it clear that Washington will not welcome further delays.
Diplomatic circles in Washington say that the Obama administration has been equally involved in Pakistan but is reluctant to discuss its involvement publicly because of possible political consequences for its Pakistani allies.
Daniel Markey, an expert on South Asian affairs at the prestigious Council on Foreign Relations, Washington, says that ‘at the moment, US diplomats are most likely trying to help put a lid back on the (current political) crisis’ in Pakistan.
Mr Markey, who is also consulted by the US State Department on India and Pakistan, says that the Obama administration is urging both President Asif Ali Zardari and Nawaz Shrif to ‘retreat from battle and identify a compromise that could keep partisan competition out of the streets and inside the constitutional process.’
He believes that the United States would like to promote a Zardari-Sharif compromise.
US experts, while explaining why the Obama administration is keen on arranging a compromise between PPP and PML-N, point out that other outcomes could have a negative impact on America’s main objective: fighting terrorism.
According to them, a victory for Mr Zardari will only increase the animosity between the two politicians and thus leave open the possibility of future confrontations between the two.
Similarly, a win for Mr Sharif also has dangerous consequences for the US goal as it would seen as a defeat for liberal political forces represented by the PPP.
But what the Americans fear more than a victory or defeat for either Mr Sharif or Mr Zardari is a ‘destabilising violence and prolonged political uncertainty.’
This could force the Pakistan army to intervene yet again and sideline both civilian contenders.
Such an outcome would not only derail the democratic process but will also make it difficult for the Obama administration to provide economic assistance and political support to a military government.
Yet, Mr Markey warns, ‘if the violence gets out of hand, US entreaties (to keep the army out of politics) will fall on deaf ears’ and the army will intervene.
Mr Markey urges the Obama administration to prepare for such an eventuality and use its influence to force the future military regime to give ‘a timeline and plans for Pakistan's return to constitutional democracy.’
But he and other scholars warn that what could be worse than a military takeover in Pakistan would be a prolonged confrontation between Mr Zardari and Mr Sharif.
If this continues and the US is seen as siding with Mr Zardari, it will force Mr Sharif to involve various religious groups in the political protest against the PPP government.
And if this protest succeeds in removing Mr Zardari, Washington will have to deal with a government backed by religious extremists.
‘Washington should work to avoid the worst-case scenario, in which a Sharif-led government would curtail partnership with the United States in ways that undermine critical US counterterrorism goals,’ warns Mr Markey.
‘Mr Sharif's behaviour will depend on whether he feels resentful or threatened by the United States, on which political allies he brings with him to Islamabad, and on how he conducts relations with Pakistan's top military and intelligence leaders,’ argues Mr Markey.
‘If Sharif's stock continues to rise, Washington should move quickly to share its primary strategic concerns with him directly and then assess his response accordingly.’
Mr Markey also argues that if President Zardari weathers the immediate political storm, his government could veer dangerously toward unconstitutional and illiberal measures to ward off waves of popular protest.
‘Washington's too-close association with an unpopular or repressive Zardari regime would prove no more effective than its recent association with Musharraf,’ he warns.