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Madam SecState in the Badlands

In the global diplomatic supermarket Pakistan occupies prominent real estate on the "can of worms" shelf. Every imaginable toxic threat to America's security lurks there: salafist (more descriptive than "Islamist") extremism, Al Qaeda command and control operatives, a rogue intelligence service aiding the Taliban, a corrupt political establishment, nuclear weapons, serial nuclear proliferators, a foundering economy, a bad case of India-envy, summer camps for wayward westerners taking in the waters at an Al Qaeda terror school, and a rabidly anti-American media, just to name a few!

In a country where Americans are blamed for everything from a cricket loss to the latest Taliban suicide bombing, Pakistanis lay at America's feet every real and imagined calamity that befalls them. Never in the annals of conspiracy theory provocateurs has there been so much time and effort devoted to make America out to be the bogeyman.

All one need do is read the Pakistani media, as I routinely do, to realize what we are up against.

A sanitized sampling from recent weeks:

"US Promoting Fears of a New Indo-Pakistani War"

"US Bribing Authorities with Foreign Aid"

"Suicide Bombers Trained by U.S. in India"

"Hillary's Purse Overflows with Tribute"

Few Americans dare venture into this policy quagmire. Fortunately, Secretary of State Clinton (and MOTB) has taken on the very heavy lift. Since taking office Mrs. Clinton has acquired a remarkably deft hand on the ship of state's rudder for navigating Pakistan's troubled waters -- a challenge that would test the mettle of any uber-seasoned diplomat. In the 17 months since assuming office, Mrs. Clinton has devoted more credible time and effort to rebalancing our frayed ties with Pakistan than any other senior U.S. official. In three trips there, and countless meetings back home, there is mounting evidence she has made some headway -- jawboning the Pakistani military and political establishment to accept Pakistan's travails as home grown and not Yankee instigated.

Of course, it helps when Mrs. Clinton arrives bearing a gift of $500 million in new U.S. foreign assistance -- foreign aid that actually has a chance to trickle down from the sticky fingers of politicians into the hands of average Pakistanis.

And to what end are Mrs. Clinton's energies directed?

1. Reversing Pakistan's inherent fear that a stable Afghanistan will ally itself with India against it.
2. Facilitating a rapprochement between India and Pakistan.
3. Dramatically reducing Pakistan's support for the Afghani Taliban -- particularly the Haqqani terrorist network which is propped up by Pakistan's diabolical intelligence agency -- the ISI.

Admirable goals -- certainly worthy of our chief diplomat's time and effort.

But like the rest of the region, Pakistan is preparing itself for the time American troops depart Afghanistan's hinterlands, as they surely will do so starting next year. And Pakistan has one overriding goal in Afghanistan: to make it, rather than India, the dominant decider of Afghanistan's fate.

By dint of force and threat, Islamabad has convinced Hamid Karzai that through its semi clandestine sponsorship of the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, Pakistan, not Washington, controls his fate. Karzai appears bowing to the inevitable. Even as Mrs. Clinton arrived in Islamabad, senior representatives of the Afghan leader were holding secret talks with Pakistani officials, and Karzai was maneuvering to attract into negotiations rogue elements of the Taliban leadership.

And what does Pakistan want out of this potential deal? Nothing less than Karzai's blood oath to begin reducing Indian influence inside Afghanistan.

So where does this leave our diplomatic strategy? Can the U.S. ultimately triangulate its objectives in South Asia to balance the competing agendas of Pakistan, Afghanistan and India?

That depends how deft Mrs. Clinton will be navigating the emerging marriage of convenience between Pakistan and Afghanistan. There is a real danger that an increasingly fearful Karzai will bequeath huge swaths of Afghanistan to the Pakistani-controlled Taliban, setting off a potential civil war inside Afghanistan and irreversibly damaging America's counter-insurgency strategy, let alone its flourishing friendship with India.

In the final analysis, there is little Mrs. Clinton can do to reverse Pakistan's designs in Afghanistan. The ISI and the Pakistani military -- not its civilian government -- are calling the shots and nothing we do will change that. No drone attack or additional foreign aid will force the ISI to reverse course.

Perhaps her best course may be to play along as best as possible by assuaging Pakistan of our intentions; provided Pakistan begins rolling up Al Qaeda's operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan and turns over the heads of Osama Bin Laden and Ayman Al Zarhariwi on a sliver platter to Mrs. Clinton. That alone would make the whole diabolical mess worth the time and effort Mrs. Clinton has devoted to this can of worms and something Americans, including our soldiers in Afghanistan, would be eternally grateful to her for achieving. For even the most war weary American, isn't that really Job #1?

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