There's something entirely fitting about the fact that Pakistan and Iraq are, together, dominating the foreign news. They are linked in strange and very somber ways.
Pakistan is potentially the nightmare country that Iraq was supposed to be under Saddam. It contains nukes, jihadis, and, in its most remote regions, training camps for al-Qaida - and probably the lair of Osama bin Laden. Combine that with political upheavals: emergency rule, jailed judges, muzzled media and murky elections. Pervez Musharraf has taken off his general's uniform and wants to continue as president in civvies, but it's uncertain who will run the country in the future.
Iraq, on the other hand, is the place we invaded on the premise that it had al-Qaida and would soon have nukes. Wrong on both counts. Our invasion created an Iraqi al-Qaida problem and provoked a religious civil war that threatened to draw in the entire region. The "surge" of additional U.S. troops has helped cool the violence for now, but no one knows what will happen once the surge has ended.
So I am off this week to visit both countries - to examine the prospects for post-surge Iraq, and post-Pervez Pakistan.
Will surge impact last?
The stakes for the United States are enormous in both countries. In Iraq, the drop in violence is the result of extra troops and good luck. The surge began after Sunni tribes had already begun turning against al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI). AQI's foreign leaders had overplayed their hand, using violence against Iraqi Sunnis who had once welcomed them.
The extra U.S. troops - who now carry out frequent neighborhood patrols in Baghdad - helped calm the city. Disbursements of cash have encouraged Sunni insurgents in Baghdad to work with U.S. soldiers against AQI elements there.
The drop in violence has been aided further by two key factors: so much ethnic cleansing has already happened in Baghdad that there is less incentive for tit-for-tat sectarian murders. Also, now that Sunni militias aren't murdering large numbers of Shiites, radical Shiite militias have put their own violence temporarily on hold.
But the $64 million question is what will happen when the 30,000 U.S. surge troops leave. Troop levels will drop by next summer, not because of congressional pressure but because the Army is too stretched to maintain that number any longer.
The strategy of the surge was aimed at buying time for Iraqi Shiite and Sunni politicians to work out some political modus vivendi. That hasn't happened. Lacking political consensus, many fear the fighting will resume once the Americans start leaving. In the worst-case scenario, Sunni tribesman and militias newly allied with U.S. troops would return to killing Shiites - and dormant Shiite militias would resume their violence.
An important part of this picture will be whether Iraq's neighbors, notably Iran, encourage their coreligionists to resume the fighting. I've argued that more active U.S. regional diplomacy is necessary to prevent this. But such diplomacy isn't likely in the run-up to the 2008 elections; chances for progress in renewed talks between Palestinians and Israelis are slim; if they fail, they may make the regional situation worse.
So I want to look at the chances for post-surge stability in Iraq. I will talk to Shiite and Sunni officials, tribal leaders and ordinary Iraqis. I also hope to visit Kurdistan, where rising tensions between Turkey and Iraqi Kurds could lead to fighting between two U.S. allies.
Whether Iraq's relative calm continues through 2008 will be an issue that greatly affects our upcoming presidential elections. I want to see whether I can detect where the situation is heading in the coming months.
Pakistan future is critical
Doing that for Pakistan will be harder. Yet in some ways the outcome there is even more important than the result in Iraq.
Pakistan's nuclear weapons are under the control of its military; many analysts believe the controls are secure, irrespective of the country's politicians. Yet the current political situation does not inspire confidence.
President Musharraf imposed martial law because the Pakistani Supreme Court was about to rule him ineligible for a second term. He says he will lift emergency rule by Dec. 16, with parliamentary elections set for Jan. 8.
But the judges remain in jail, independent TV stations are closed, and few believe elections will be fair. Some parties may boycott. No one's certain how much power Musharraf can wield as president without his uniform.
Outsiders are struggling to discern who's in charge of a country with nukes and homegrown Islamists, and whether those weapons are really as secure as the experts think.
The leaders of Pakistan's two most prominent civilian parties, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, have recently returned from exile but are at each other's throats. The more pro-Western Bhutto has pledged to crack down on Pakistan's radical Islamists as well as foreign terrorists if she becomes prime minister. Sharif is likely to be less enthusiastic about doing anything that seems to be at America's bidding.
So I will be eager to talk to Pakistanis about their upcoming elections, their military, their politicians and their future. And how they feel about Muslim extremists who are taking control of areas once frequented by tourists.
I also want to look at the issue of schools - and whether building more of them can counter the influence of jihadis who provide religious schools for poor youngsters in areas where such institutions are lacking. For part of my trip, I hope to accompany Greg Mortenson, the author of the bestselling book "Three Cups of Tea," which recounts his adventures building more than 55 girls' schools in Pakistan.
Many questions to answer
In Iraq the question is how to avoided a failed state, in which Islamist militants can set up bases or control territory. In nuclear-armed Pakistan the jihadis already have bases; the question is whether its generals and politicians will confront the radicals or let their influence widen.
Two countries, two very, very fraught questions. I will be seeking answers to both.