Pakistan is a martial nation with an outstanding reputation for its military prowess and a well deserved pride in its armed forces. However the Pakistan military and intelligence service have played a disproportionately influential role in mainstream politics over the last 60 years.
Democracy does not appear to flourish in this militaristic state and this has played a significant part in Pakistan's appalling human rights record. However it is Pakistan's long standing support for Islamic militants that has rightly seen the regime in Islamabad condemned by many observers as a home of terrorism.
Infamous intelligence service
Pakistan's infamous Inter-Service Intelligence agency has not only armed and trained generations of Islamic extremists in Kashmir and Afghanistan, it is also believed to have directed many of their terrorist attacks in both territories, and in the crowded streets of India's major cities.
The ISI is a protege of the Central Intelligence Agency and a child of an even larger worldwide political conflict; the Cold War. Created in the US agency's image, it has been regularly used to great effect by Washington in this troubled region.
At one time or another India, Iran, Afghanistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka have all reportedly been the victims of aggressive intelligence operations on behalf of the CIA and the support shown for terrorist groups by the ISI for reasons of their own..
After the Soviet invasion of 1979, Afghanistan became a major theatre of operation for Pakistan intelligence. Both al Qaeda, and the Taliban were to benefit hugely from ISI's comprehensive level of support.
Throughout the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and the war on terrorism, the Iraq occupation and the growing confrontation with Iran, relations between the US and the Pakistani intelligence communities have apparently remained close.
War on Terrorism
However, the forces within the ISI who sided with Islamic extremism, supplied them with weapons, training and intelligence remain highly influential and despite repeated denials by former President Pervez Musharraf and the current weak civilian administration, the Taliban's military revival has much to do with the ISI's continued clandestine support.
It is a bitter irony that Pakistan has achieved this position of importance in the US-led coalition by providing bases and support for the campaign in Afghanistan, while on the other hand the ISI is still offering aid to those same terrorists.
Pakistan's perceived long-term self-interest is more than sufficient for it to covertly sanction actions that directly result in the deaths of US, UK and NATO soldiers serving in Afghanistan. Whether this is with the full approval of the government in Islamabad or simply that the ISI remains a law unto themselves is a matter that remains open to question.
This despite repeated claims by ministers that the ISI and the military has been cleansed of its more extreme officers and no longer provides support for terrorist or insurgent movements.
There is a widely held belief that Pakistani intelligence remains a virtual state within a state. Its actions either ignored or even secretly condoned by the military regime.
The al Qaeda connection
It must remain highly questionable whether Pakistan has any real commitment to the War on Terrorism and there are many observers who believe that the government in Islamabad is clandestinely providing cover for leading al Qaeda terrorists.
Indeed if the highly respected journalist Dan Rather of the US CBS network is to be believed, Pakistan's Army was actively sheltering Osama bin Laden on September 11, 2001.
At the very time Al Qaeda crashed loaded passenger jets into the WTC twin towers and the Pentagon, America's 'Enemy Number One' was reportedly receiving life-saving kidney dialysis treatment at a military-controlled hospital in Rawalpindi.
Yet bin Laden was allowed to walk free, to disappear apparently without trace in the tribal border lands between Pakistan and Afghanistan. It is this same troubled area that has seen the recent truce signed between the Pakistan security forces and the militant Islamic tribes.
This alone may have effectively secured bin Laden's continuing freedom of action as well as that of al Qaeda itself and a resurgent Taliban.
It is significant that the ISI, Special Operations Forces and other elements within the army, paramilitary units and police are believed to still provide logistic support and training for militants.
Pakistan undoubtedly deserves to be placed high on the American government's list of those countries guilty of state sponsorship of terrorism along with Syria and Iran. Indeed, Pakistan makes use of the Kashmir militants in much the same way as Iran uses Hezbollah; as a powerful political bargaining chip and to fight a proxy-war against a more powerful neighbour.
Pakistan stares into the abyss
Pakistan can rightly be described as a failing state. Its internal unity has dissolved into open warfare in significant parts of the country and its relations with India, its heavily armed and nuclear capable neighbour, are in tatters.
Even the patience of its long suffering ally, the United States is now wearing decidedly thin.
Pakistan has a militaristic society that has grown tired of its generals playing politics and instead placed in charge a civilian government that soon appeared to be virtually incapable of tackling head-on the main issues threatening to tear apart the fabric of the nation:
The growing influence of Islamic extremists in the FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas), Pakistan-administered Kashmir and many of the northern cities in particular.
The devious role played by the ISI as highlighted by what appears to be solid evidence that it is still supporting terrorist activity in Afghanistan, Kashmir and most significantly within India itself.
The degree to which extreme Islamic beliefs have been wholeheartedly accepted within large parts of the regular army and the junior ranks of the officer corps in particular.
There can be little doubt that besides shoring up the world's shattered economy and dealing with a potentially nuclear armed Iran, high on the list of priorities for the incoming Barack Obama administration will be the fear of a meltdown in Pakistan some time in 2009.
Obama's choice of Hillary Clinton as his secretary of state is a highly significant move in relation to South Asia and has been broadly welcomed by many observers in New Delhi.
Clinton developed a close working relationship with both India and the Indian-American community back home during the eight years her husband Bill Clinton served as US President.
It is unlikely that the new US administration will or would want to continue to excuse Pakistan's wanton unwillingness to at least attempt to deal with the rising tide of Islamic extremism threatening both the integrity of the nation and the stability of an already troubled region.
In response to the growing chorus of international criticism Pakistan has hinted at a variety of responses, but looked at carefully these would appear to be largely empty gestures made by an increasingly panicked and confused government in Islamabad.
The Pakistan Army presently deploys at least four regular infantry divisions (including the 7th, 9th, 14th and 23rd) in the FATA, the vital region that borders Afghanistan. Islamabad quickly made it known that in response to any sabre-rattling by New Delhi, it would be forced to move these units back to their old defensive positions on the border with India.
This in theory would expose the Western forces inside Afghanistan and their long supply route which sees some 350 trucks carrying over 7,000 tons through Pakistan every day to even greater danger from Islamic insurgents. The recent attack that destroyed over 100 US and NATO supply vehicles on Peshawar's outer ring road merely served to highlight this threat.
However, as many seasoned observers quickly pointed out, the Pakistan Army with a severely restricted logistic capability would not be able to achieve this massive redeployment quickly or effectively.
Indeed, as many of the army units currently deployed in the FATA have shown little or no interest in actually combating the local insurgency, the withdrawal of one or all of these divisions would probably not have a significant effect on the overall border security situation.
Recently some Pakistan officials have felt it necessary to quietly remind New Delhi -- and the world in general -- that it is a nuclear power. However, there must still be some doubt as to how many usable nuclear devices Pakistan actually has. Some estimates have been as low as just two 20 kiloton warheads.
Whatever the correct figure may be, Washington's studied indifference to Islamabad's implied nuclear warning goes some considerable way to confirming reports that Pakistan's nuclear arsenal is very closely monitored, if not actually controlled in some way by the United States.
It is quite possible that any attempt to move these weapons, let alone deploy them would result in a swift US response and their total destruction.
No change yet
Pakistan is also once again going through the pantomime performance of publicly arresting a few leading members of the Islamic extremist groups that proliferate inside their borders.
Short of these prisoners now being handed over to the Indian authorities along with many others listed as terrorists, New Delhi and an increasingly impatient Washington are likely to remain largely unimpressed.
There has still been no serious attempt by the Pakistan authorities to disarm the militants, close down their training camps or dismantle the organizational structure that provides both new recruits and financial support.
The Lashkar-e-Tayiba and other such militant groups with a long track record of carrying out attacks in both Kashmir and India remain very largely untouched and free to continue planning the next terrorist outrage.
The ISI apparently continues to covertly arm, support and train Islamic militants, and some observers have claimed that they may even play a significant role in planning and directing attacks such as those on Mumbai.
Despite the replacement of Lieutenant General Nadeem Taj as head of the ISI on October 1 by the reportedly more moderate Lieutenant General Ahmed Shujaa Pasha, seen by some as an attempt to placate Washington, little of substance has altered and the ISI seems as firmly wedded to its pro-Taliban, pro-Kashmir, anti-Indian stance as before.
The Pakistan Army also appears content to remain on its path toward radicalization, providing yet more training and -- according to some sources -- playing a large role in protecting and maintaining the militant infrastructure.
However, this level of semi-official Pakistan involvement with national and international terrorism may finally bring significant problems for the government in Islamabad.
Despite Indian Premier Manmohan Singh once stating that "Unless Pakistan takes concrete steps to implement the assurances it has given to prevent cross-border terrorism against India from any territory within its control, public opinion in India, which has supported the peace process, will be undermined", India has remained hamstrung by governments that appear to suffer from some form of strange rictus that prevents anything more than studied inaction and an overwhelming willingness to compromise.
Only may now following the outrage in Mumbai may it be forced to at least consider a positive and if left with no other alternative, a military response.
However if the present Congress party government is removed in the upcoming elections, its replacement by the more nationalistic Bharatiya Janata Party would probably be far more likely to launch a serious military strike at Pakistan.
The BJP has long accused Congress of being insufficiently aggressive in combating terrorism and now argues that the Mumbai attack was in part a result of this failure.
If the killing of over 170 civilians, police and military in Mumbai proves to be India's September 11, 2001, then it will not be long before New Delhi now finally accepts that one of the most important ways to protect its citizens is to be viewed as willing to retaliate against those who openly sponsor, house, arm and train terrorists.
This could be by way of limited air strikes and commando raids on the scores of Islamic terrorist camps and arms dumps most likely within Pakistan-administered Kashmir, initially.
Some sources have even suggested that the outline of a suitable plan was shown to US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recently. Rice is reported to have quietly commented that while the United States was strongly opposed to a full-scale war between India and Pakistan, it might not be totally averse to some form of limited counter-terror operations.
Risk of greater confrontation
However, a lack of serious and successful crackdowns on Islamic extremist groups within Pakistan by the government of Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, or the repetition of major terrorist acts against Indian targets, could lead to a far wider and more significant confrontation.
Under those circumstances New Delhi may have no alternative but to launch major punitive military operations across the border into Pakistan itself.
It is possible that a clearly exasperated United States may even sanction this as a much-needed salutary lesson for Islamabad that it must take responsibility for the actions of its citizens and for any extremist groups based safely within its national borders.
A military assault is not, of course, the only means of applying pressure on Pakistan. Other punitive measures have been aired ranging from an Indian naval blockade of Karachi and the coast to the withdrawal of large amounts of vital financial aid used to shore up Pakistan's crumbling economy.
Pakistan's uncertain future
Pakistan is rightfully a proud country, but has little to be genuinely proud about in its current situation. It is a nation that has been constantly let down by a succession of weak civilian governments and heavy-handed military dictatorships.
It now faces economic meltdown, a chaotic political situation, widespread extremism and the growing disaffection of significant numbers of the middle class, civil service and the military.
Some experienced observers have openly suggested that tanks and armoured vehicles may once again be seen on the streets of Pakistan's cities as the military takes back power from yet another failed civilian administration.
Normally this might have been greeted by a resigned and cautious welcome in Washington. However, this time it might just be that militant Islamic elements within the officer corps are staging a coup.
The real fear then is of an unstable Pakistan sinking into chaos and anarchy and vast amounts of territory, weapons and perhaps nuclear materials falling under the control of Islamic extremists linked to al-Qaeda.
This would without a doubt be the United States and India's worst nightmare. Indeed it might turn out to be the last act before decisive foreign military operations to neutralise Pakistan began in earnest.
Pakistan is potentially a powerful ally in the "war on terror" and a firm friend of the West. Sadly it has chosen to play the devious game of running with the fox and hunting with the hounds for far too long.
Islamabad's continued deceptions are having a caustic effect on its international relations and dangerously increasing tension with India.
Having lived by the sword for so long, Pakistan now risks dying by it as well.
Richard Bennett is an intelligence analyst