WASHINGTON The next U.S. president stands to inherit a potentially more dangerous challenge in Afghanistan and Pakistan than the situation that led to the September 11 attacks in 2001.
The situation is so serious that analysts say the incoming administration will need to move quickly on a broad new initiative to address the Pashtun region, which both countries share, with a mix of military pressure and economic aid.
"It will be extremely important to have an effective new strategy right out of the box. They cannot wait for a lengthy transition," said J. Alexander Thier of the U.S. Institute of Peace, a congressionally funded Washington think tank.
The two U.S. presidential nominees, Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain, have pledged to make Afghanistan a top priority if elected to the White House on November 4.
Whoever enters the Oval Office will have to find more than 10,000 additional troops requested by commanders in Afghanistan even as military officials say more units will become available only if Washington cuts forces in Iraq or breaks its rules on how long troops should spend at home between deployments.
The next president will also face the prospect of a wavering commitment to Afghanistan by some NATO allies. "There is concern that some of our allies and partners may be looking for an exit," Defense Secretary Robert Gates said recently.
The region is far more complex than in January 2001, when President George W. Bush first entered office and Afghanistan's Taliban regime was giving haven to al Qaeda, which was behind the attacks on New York and Washington eight months later.
"The next president is going to have to understand that this conflict does not exist within the geographical contours of Afghanistan. It exists within the mental contours of the Pashtun nation, which straddles the Afghanistan-Pakistan border," said Nathaniel Fick, a former U.S. Marine Corps officer who served in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Today the United States and NATO are losing ground against an escalating Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, despite the presence of 64,000 western troops, while Al Qaeda has regained strength in Pakistan's tribal region beyond the easy grasp of U.S. forces.
PAKISTAN'S NUCLEAR RISK
More disturbing still, analysts say, Pakistan is now facing an existential threat from Islamist militants at a time when the nuclear-armed nation and its new civilian government are engulfed in extraordinarily difficult economic problems.
"It is more dangerous now than it was back then," said Fick, who is now at the Center for a New American Security.
Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies said: "The scorecard is scarcely reassuring. Al Qaeda is stronger and has more influence, a nuclear Pakistan is far less stable (and) Iran has gained in regional influence and poses more of a potential threat than Saddam's Iraq."
Others disagree about the threat of al Qaeda, which cannot operate openly in established camps as it did in 2001, and say the Afghan insurgency is far less sophisticated than the threat U.S. forces faced in Iraq a few years ago.
"Al Qaeda's senior leadership is on its heels," said Michael Vickers, assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity warfare. "The Afghanistan insurgency has gotten significantly more intense over the past two years. I would add: from a very, very low base."
But in Pakistan, analysts say, a wave of militant violence that led to the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and the bombing of Islamabad's Marriott hotel now threatens the government with collapse.
"If events continue to go badly and Pakistan loses this war, you can imagine that in four or five years, we would be in a worse position than we were in 2001," said Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations.
(Editing by David Storey)