Pakistan is a Gordian knot of contradictions and conflicts. It's geographical position next to Afghanistan makes its cooperation essential for the prosecution of the U.S./NATO war against the Afghan Taliban. As a possessor of nuclear weapons, stability in Pakistan is vital to regional security. The decades old conflict with neighboring India over the Muslim majority province of Kashmir keeps significant numbers of Pakistani troops on the southern border, away from the effort to deal with the insurgents in Waziristan, as well as creating a perpetual flashpoint with nuclear armed India.
Pakistan's government had to retreat from its recent position on the domestic matter of cuts in fuel subsidies which would have raised gasoline prices but been an important step in aiding Pakistan's struggling economy. Pakistan has a parliamentary form of government and currently relies on the twenty five votes of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement to maintain the government coalition. Meanwhile, the country is in the midst of religious turmoil. A regional governor who was an outspoken critic of Pakistan's blasphemy laws has been assassinated and a street protest in Karachi, Pakistan's largest city by 50,000 supporters of the oppressive laws which carry capital punishment as a possible outcome, has forced the government to declare its continued support for the laws. The laws are important for what they say about Pakistani culture, the ability and willingness of the military to mount a successful campaign against fundamentalist insurgents, the future of U.S. military operations and "nation building" in Afghanistan and the possibility of a fundamentalist theocratic regime coming to power in Pakistan.
Between 2002 and 2010 the U.S. has spent $17.82 billion in Pakistan in the form of economic and military aid. Yet, the Pakistani military has had a separate agenda which has included support for the Pakistani Taliban, the support for Pakistani Kashmiri terrorists by the military intelligence agency the ISI, and infiltration of the army itself by religious zealots, who oppose the fundamental precepts of democratic institutions. Governor Taseer was assassinated by one of his own specially trained military security guards even though it has been reported that the assassin made his plans known to the unit prior to the killing. The assassin was declared a "hero" by the street mobs in Karachi.
The bottom line is that Pakistan is another "tiger" whose tail the U.S. has grasped for decades but which is now slipping slowly free. If U.S. and the few remaining NATO forces are to leave Afghanistan by 2014, the Taliban and Al-Qaida leadership in Waziristan can't be left intact. Even if the Pakistani army agrees to cooperate in significant operations against these groups, the ethnic divisions, Muslim extremists and inability of Pakistani governments to actually govern effectively makes Pakistan look more and more like the chaotic situation in Iraq except that Pakistan has nuclear weapons.
In terms of broad U.S. foreign policy goals, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq offer the same lesson. "Nation building" is a liberal fantasy. The idea that all oppressed cultures crave democracy and thus it can be imposed by outside force, is a neo-conservative fantasy. Money alone cannot transform nations. The political culture of nations can only be changed slowly by the willing participation of the inhabitants. Religious extremism and tribal divisions defy Western concepts of compromise and "the loyal opposition". U.S. foreign policy should be oriented to restoring and maintaining order, assisting willing governments in efforts to liberalize their political cultures but accepting the reality of the need for strong central authority when nothing else works.