By Brajesh Upadhyay
BBC News, Washington
Militant groups may be adopting a regional strategy
As the Bush presidency nears its end and a deadline for the US troop withdrawal from Iraq is inked on paper, the focus now is back on the Pakistan-Afghanistan region - an area President-elect Barack Obama has repeatedly referred to as the first front in the "war against terror".
For now, a surge in troop numbers in Afghanistan looks imminent before spring of 2009 and a rigorous effort is on towards formulating a comprehensive approach for the entire region.
The diplomatic crisis triggered by the Mumbai (Bombay) attacks has further added to the urgency.
At least two policy reports on the region, one of them by Gen David Petraeus, who is credited with turning the tide in Iraq to a certain extent, are expected before an Obama administration takes charge in Washington on 20 January.
Gen Petraeus, who now also has Afghanistan under his command, is a known advocate for regional diplomacy as a key counter-insurgency tactic.
A former Pakistan analyst at the US state department, Marvin Weinbaum, says the new regional approach will be to bring in China, Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia - but above all Pakistan and India.
Mr Obama has talked about looking at Afghanistan as "part of a regional problem that includes Pakistan, India and Iran''.
His top South Asia adviser, Bruce Riedel, who has also counselled three US presidents on South Asia and the Middle East, advocates the India-Pakistan normalisation route to solving Afghanistan.
The basic premise of this thinking is that normal relations with India, particularly resolving the Kashmir dispute, will let Pakistan focus more on the fight against al-Qaeda and Taleban along the western border.
However, not many South Asian experts seem to agree with this strategy.
Stephen Cohen, a well-known expert on the region, says he forwarded the idea 20 years ago that you cannot deal with Afghanistan without dealing with India and Pakistan.
"But it will be simplistic to say let's solve Kashmir and everything will be good in Afghanistan... That's going too fast and too much,'' says Mr Cohen, who has authored several books on the region including The Idea of Pakistan.
Barack Obama sees Afghanistan as a priority issue
Ashley J Tellis, who specialises in international security, defence and Asian strategic issues, has even stronger words.
"It was a bad idea before the Mumbai attacks and a bad idea after the Mumbai attacks. The faster we get away from it, the better it will be not only for the US but for peace in South Asia,'' says Mr Tellis, who is with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think-tank.
He says the real problem is a weak Pakistan that is unable to control its national territory and must be assisted to control it effectively.
"The other half of the problem is the elements of the Pakistan state that are complicit with groups that pose a threat to Pakistan and the international community. The incoming US government will have to confront these issues directly,'' says Mr Tellis.
There is also a thought emerging that militant groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba or other jihadi elements within Pakistan are no longer just looking at Kashmir but aiming at turning the entire south and central Asian region into an Islamic state on the lines of a caliphate.
But nevertheless, the theory that Kashmir could be the solution to Afghanistan has resulted in murmurs regarding a US envoy for Kashmir.
Lisa Curtis, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, says Barack Obama's assertion that the US should help resolve the Kashmir issue so that Pakistan can focus on the Afghan border is misguided.
"This could raise unrealistic expectations in Pakistan and encourage Islamabad to increase support for Kashmiri militants to push an agenda it believed was within reach,'' says Ms Curtis.
Should solving Kashmir be linked to the Afghan strategy?
She says instead of narrowly focusing on Kashmir, the incoming Obama administration should assume a much wider view of the region's challenges.
"Such a broad approach would recognise that Pakistan's focus on Kashmir is a symptom of broader issues, including the impact of India's emergence as a global power and the Pakistani army's continued domination over the country's national security policies,'' says Ms Curtis.
She suggests appointing a US envoy for South Asia as a whole.
The other strong push for normalising Indo-Pakistan relations in order to stabilise Afghanistan is based on the proposition that it is the rivalry between the two countries that is playing out in Afghanistan.
Pakistan looks at Afghanistan as its strategic backyard and there is a serious concern that growing Indian influence in Afghanistan will rob it of this advantage.
India is now Afghanistan's largest trade partner. It has reportedly invested $750m and pledged $450m more to Kabul and opened consulates in Jalalabad and Kandahar.
"So there's a thinking here that Pakistan is not acting as much as they should against the Afghan Taleban to keep their advantage intact against India,'' says Marvin Weinbaum.
But more than the "exaggerated paranoia about Indian presence in Afghanistan'', he says, Pakistan is concerned that the international community will not stick for too long with President Hamid Karzai and Afghanistan could disintegrate.
"That's why they don't want to give up on the Afghan Taleban who could keep the country intact,'' says Mr Weinbaum.
"The new administration must realise that India is not the reason why insurgents are winning in Afghanistan.''