Foreign Policy Conundrums: Pakistan

The relationship between Washington and Islamabad reads like the best of Mexican telenovelas: plot twists, bad acting and downright cold wars between the main characters.

Two recent events are cause for worry; one, Pakistan's agreement to build a natural gas pipeline from Iran and two, where economic relations might go in the face of sanctions, in the aftermath of this project.

This bilateral alliance would hardly have been announced, had NATO's mission in Afghanistan not been ending by next year, as member states and particularly the U.S. pull out combat troops, instead transitioning to a secondary, training role for the Afghan army.

The bipolar nature of Pakistan's army, and specifically the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) in supporting certain terrorist groups over others will continue to be a motivation for U.S. drones operating over the Afghan-Pak border, but budgets cuts would ultimately mean that we'd have to let go of that reality, as risky as it might be.

Without ISAF, much of the raison d'etre for the US-Pakistani relationship disappears, as Islamabad visibly drifts away from America. Where it could still remain strong is in the effort against the spread of nuclear weapons, as the subcontinent is host to one of the world's most volatile atomic relationships, with both countries conducting tests in 1998 and Pakistan's ongoing strategic concerns, nuclear and conventional, with India. This is where Washington could yet be a positive force.

Another interesting dynamic to watch will be China's evolving relationship with Pakistan, as Beijing seeks to gain influence beyond its traditionally restive western borders. While this won't likely come up in SOTU, Barack Obama could give a clear hint to the Chinese that there will be a limit to their aspirations in Pakistan.