While president Barack Obama may want to be remembered for revitalizing the US economy, he is going to be made or unmade on the battlegrounds of Af-Pak -- more likely unmade by the current looks of it. The United States has made public that Pakistan's president, Asif Ali Zardari, defied it by signing into law the peace deal with the Taliban, which proposes to impose Islamic Sharia law in Swat Valley. A US state department spokesperson said both the Pakistan army and Zardari had been continually pressed not to accept the deal and not to sign it into law. So, why has Zardari defied the US? More to the point, how could he, considering that Pakistan survives on American aid?

These questions relate as much to Zardari as to Obama, or perhaps more to Obama. When a new US president takes over, friends and adversaries alike test him for such presidential qualities as resolve, grit, vision, boldness, and so forth. A US presidential election is a tremendous battleground, and Obama showed staying power against Hilary Clinton, although his contest against his Republican rival, John McCain, was made easier with the September bankruptcies. Every fence-sitter, and not a few Republican sympathizers, crossed over to Obama's side. During the election campaign, specific to Af-Pak (although that coinage hadn't happened then), Obama promised to push Pakistan harder to combat the Al-Qaeda/ Taliban, gave no indication of lowering the intensity of drone attacks, and warned that Parvez Musharraf-style hoodwinking (running with the Al-Qaeda/ Taliban hare and hunting with the US hound) would not be tolerated.

When did things begin going wrong? Or rather, have they? When Obama assumed office, and understood the fatal nature of US exposure on three fronts simultaneously, the economy, Iraq and Afghanistan, he began hedging on Afghanistan (apart from his miscues on the economy). His administration explored the idea of doing a deal with the so-called "moderate" Taliban rather than fight to win the war. In that sense, what Zardari is doing is following on the footsteps of Obama. Except in the US case, the Taliban scorned the idea. It scorned the notion of "moderate" Taliban and said it would not settle for anything less than complete withdrawal of all foreign forces from Afghanistan, a position that Iran has taken, which the US is trying to engage on Afghanistan. When the moderate-Taliban idea came a cropper, Obama realized there was no easy exit from Afghanistan, accepted US troops' surge requirements, has extended drone attacks to Baluchistan to new Al-Qaeda/ Taliban hideaways, and significantly reoriented the defence budget to meet conditions of Afghanistan- and Iraq-like wars.

But clearly, the gap between what Obama personally desires and what he is being situationally compelled to do is widening, creating problems for US prosecution of the Afghan war, and giving opportunities for Pakistan to act up. In other words, a double-minded US president is creating problems for himself and his country. It is not clear what role his vice-president, Joe Biden, plays in this confusion or his presidential election rival and present secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, but certainly Obama's own dilemmas are no small stumbling block. He does not want to take the road of his predecessor, George W.Bush, but neither is he able to make a roadmap for himself.

Why Pakistan is acting up now is because it perceives Obama to be weak, not the seemingly strong presidential candidate Obama. Pakistan wants the drone attacks ceased, but it is the US's only offensive weapon absent the possibility of American troops fighting the Al-Qaeda/ Taliban in Pakistani FATA. (By the way, during the election campaign, Obama vowed to send US forces to fight the terrorists in Pakistan regardless of Pakistani objections, but has fallen back to the Bush position of not antagonizing the Pakistani leadership by doing so.) With the US in no position to halt the drone attacks, and the Pakistani Taliban consequently threatening to escalate its suicide attacks within Pakistan, Zardari perhaps had no option but to legalize the peace deal.

But there is another possibility. Politically cornered by Nawaz Sharief, with stirrings of revolt within his own party, PPP, and the Bhutto family unhappy with his ways, Zardari may have hoped to win reprieve for himself by embracing a fundamentalist plank. This will also get him closer, or so he probably believes, to the Pakistan army which anyhow distrusts Sharief.

Nawaz Sharief, himself, has pandered to fundamentalists earlier and is anyway already opposed to the US-sponsored military campaign in FATA. In her time, Benazir Bhutto courted the hardliners. With the full knowledge of the US and with the help of the ISI, she created the Taliban in 1994, only to die at the hands of its Pakistani offshoot. Zardari won't have any better luck with the Taliban, even if he is spared or escapes the fate of his wife. On the other hand, for the US (and India), the problems from Pakistan multiply. India should now also worry about a US president whose heart is no longer in defeating the Af-Pak terrorists, even though he may be taking some overdue decisions to strengthen the American military campaign there.