As America's second post-9/11 President takes office, a single country has become ground zero for the terrorist threat we face. The consensus among our intelligence agencies is that top Al Qaeda leaders are plotting their next attack from Pakistan, where the prevalence of religious extremists and nuclear weapons make that country the central, crucial front in our struggle to protect America from terrorism. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, has called the border region the "site of planning for the next attack" on the United States.
Pakistan is under enormous pressure from all sides, from tensions with India to a ferocious insurgency in the tribal belt to a financial crisis that threatens the solvency of the Pakistani state. And all of this is being held together by a fledgling civilian government not even a year old. For our sake and theirs, America must do more to help Pakistan.
Crucial to this effort will be finding a winning regional strategy that recognizes the centrality of Pakistan's relationships with neighbors such as Afghanistan and India.
It has become conventional wisdom that the war in Afghanistan can be lost in Pakistan, whose tribal belt offers a sanctuary from which Taliban insurgents launch cross-border raids against us and our Afghan allies. What is often overlooked, however, is that the opposite is true as well: Violent instability in Afghanistan can undercut essential counterinsurgency efforts in Pakistan.
We saw brutal evidence of this in the recent attack on the Pakistani Frontier Corps by militants operating from clandestine bases across the border inside Afghanistan. Pakistan's success in exerting control over its tribal areas depends on U.S. and NATO forces getting the resources they need to accomplish their mission on the Afghan side of the border.
Similarly, as the aftermath of the November terror attacks in Mumbai reminded us, getting Pakistan to focus its military on extremist sanctuaries that endanger American troops also depends on lowering tensions with India. We must work assiduously to help Pakistan and India to find a path back to the bilateral peace talks which were disrupted by the Mumbai attacks.
I recently returned from South Asia, and my conversations there left me with some observations that may be helpful in explaining how and why we must support Pakistan and its people.
While there is an increasingly broad consensus that Pakistan is the strategic center of gravity for defeating insurgents in Afghanistan, a military strategy alone cannot prevail on either side of the border. An effective counter-insurgency must address longer-term political, economic, and development challenges, especially in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas and the Northwest Frontier Province on the Afghan border.
This is why I will seek swift passage of the Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act, which would triple non-military assistance to Pakistan through projects that will directly support the Pakistani people, strengthen democratic institutions, promote economic freedoms, and encourage investment in the agriculture, education and infrastructure sectors.
In my recent travels, I met with the leadership. While I believe President Asif Ali Zardari, Army Chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani and Lt. General Ahmed Shuja Pasha, the intelligence chief, are credible in their commitment to defeating the militant factions threatening their country, as always it will be the follow-through that counts.
As vital as civilian aid will be in Pakistan's success, we also need to provide the tools to fight the extremists. The list ranges from electronic detection and communications equipment to helicopters that can move swiftly in the inhospitable terrain of the tribal belt. We can do this and still demand greater accountability from Pakistan's military.
Pakistan is experiencing a dire and crippling financial crisis. In just one year, the country's reserves have declined 75 percent to $3.45 billion, forcing Pakistan to turn to the International Monetary Fund for a rescue package.
America must lead an international effort to protect Pakistan from financial collapse. Pakistan's leaders will have to act responsibly in the months ahead - but by necessity they will also look increasingly to the international community for support. Passage of the partnership act will be a good start, but not enough to stave off the risk that Pakistan's fragile civilian government will be shaken by severe economic unrest. Future international aid packages should include verifiable guarantees that the money will be spent on economic development that helps the Pakistani people. And as we do, we should leverage our assistance to restore belief in the legitimacy of our mission.
While our support is crucial, key to the success of all of these efforts will be the Pakistani leadership's ability to resolve outstanding political issues so it can focus on the difficult challenges of governing.
For all its challenges, Pakistan remains a vital partner in our efforts against Al Qaeda's global insurgency. My recent visits have convinced me that success in Afghanistan demands that we help build a stable and moderate Pakistan. That means our relationship with Pakistan cannot begin and end with helping its military - we must also speak directly to its people and its civilian government. Pakistan's prosperity and its security - as well as our own - depend on it.
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., his party's presidential nominee in 2004, is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.