Pakistan is the most critical foreign policy issue which the two presidential candidates --incumbent Barack Obama [ Images ] and his Republican rival Mitt Romney -- need to address during their third and final face-to-face debate in Florida [ Images ], a top American expert has said.
In an op-ed in Daily Beast, former CIA officer Bruce Riedel issued a strong warning to the two candidates that Pakistan is more important foreign policy issue than Libya, the Middle East or the attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi.
"It is a battlefield between extremists, often linked to Al Qaeda [ Images ], and those who want a progressive and modern Pakistan. The sixth-largest country in the world -- and soon to be the world's largest Muslim country -- it already has the fastest-growing nuclear arsenal on the planet. And it is home to Al Qaeda's leadership," he wrote.
"It is the epicentre of the global jihad. From 9/11 to the 2008 attack on Mumbai [ Images ], al-Qaeda and its allies like Lashkar-e-Tayiba [ Images ] have plotted their schemes in Karachi, Lahore [ Images ], and Abbottabad. Since our last election in 2008, Pakistan has been the launch platform for plots to attack the New York City subway and Times Square. Three of the five terrorists on our most-wanted list are in Pakistan today," said Riedel.
Both Obama and Romney rightly agree we should transition our troops out of Afghanistan by 2014, he said, but what the people of the United States need to hear from them tomorrow is how they will keep the pressure on the terrorists in Pakistan when we bring US troops home from Afghanistan.
"How will we continue to undertake the necessary counter terror missions from Afghan bases? Do we have a plan B if the Afghan Army starts to disintegrate? Do we have a plan to protect the more than 3 million young Afghan girls now going to school in their country who would be treated just like Malala if Taliban [ Images ] regains power? How do we fight terror? ... These are the really tough questions," he said.
Riedel said America's ties with Pakistan are tortured and complex. The US has been very generous to Pakistan. Since 9/11, the US has disbursed more than $25 billion in military and economic aid to Islamabad [ Images ]. "No other country except Israel has received so much American aid since 2001."
On the other hand, Pakistan and America are adversaries in Afghanistan, Riedel argued in the Daily Beast, adding that in many ways the US is fighting a proxy war in Afghanistan.
"The United States, the UN, NATO, and troops from more than 40 countries back the legitimately elected Kabul government led by Hamid Karzai [ Images ]. Pakistan pays lip service to the Karzai government but provides key assistance to its enemy, the Afghan Taliban," he said.
"The Pakistani intelligence service, ISI, shelters the Taliban leadership in Quetta, Karachi, and Waziristan, trains its fighters, and helps it plan attacks on Afghan government and NATO targets. Interrogations of thousands of captured Taliban fighters by NATO show that Pakistan's support is essential to the success of the insurgency. Senior American officials have characterized the insurgents as taking direction from the ISI," Riedel alleged.