Representative David Obey, who chairs the House appropriations committee, is comparing the Afghanistan-Pakistan war to Vietnam:

There were new signs of uneasiness on Capitol Hill about United States involvement in the region. The Democratic chairman of the House Appropriations Committee pronounced himself as “very doubtful” that Mr. Obama’s plan for Afghanistan and Pakistan could succeed. The chairman, Representative David Obey, of Wisconsin, said he would allow only one year for the White House to show concrete results, and repeatedly likened Mr. Obama’s approach to President Richard Nixon’s plans for Vietnam in 1969.

And Obey is planning to attach conditions to aid that President Obama wants:

Mr. Obey, whose committee oversees all federal discretionary spending, said Monday that in the supplemental war-funding bill the House Democrats plan to require the White House to report to Congress next year with measurements of progress from Afghanistan and Iraq in five specific areas: political consensus, government corruption, counterinsurgency efforts, intelligence cooperation and border security.

He added: “I am not going to be looking at those standards like I am the permanent president of the optimists’ club.” At stake is at least $1 billion in immediate funding for Pakistan’s war and for economic aid, along with — potentially — $1.5 billion a year in additional aid that Obama wants for the next five to ten years.

In a Washington Post op-ed, Pakistan’s premier journalist, Ahmed Rashid challenges Obey directly, without mentioning his name:

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has asked Congress for $497 million in emergency funds to stabilize Pakistan’s economy, strengthen law enforcement and help the refugees. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has asked for $400 million in aid to the army, funds that would be monitored by U.S. Central Command. Lawmakers are hesitating. … But delays are dangerous.

And Rashid opposes conditions on the aid:

Other legislation before Congress would provide $1.5 billion a year to Pakistan for the next five years. But the extensive conditions — as varied as improving relations with India, fighting the Afghan Taliban and allowing the U.S. interrogation of Pakistani nuclear scientists — are too much for any Pakistani government to accept and survive politically. … Congress should pass the emergency funds quickly and, at minimum, offer the first year of the $1.5 billion without conditions.

On this, I’m with Obey — and not Rashid. (We’re still waiting for the Obama administration to announce the supposed “benchmarks” for its Afghanistan plan, announced in March.)

Rashid makes the argument that Pakistan is deteriorating so fast that it might collapse. He makes an important point, that the Pashtun-based Taliban insurgency in Pakistan is spreading to non-Pashtun areas, including the Punjabi heartland:

Pakistanis are beset by a galloping Taliban insurgency in the north that is based not just among Pashtuns, as in Afghanistan, but that has extensive links to al-Qaeda and jihadist groups in Punjab, Sindh and Baluchistan.

That means the Taliban offensive in northern Pakistan has the potential to become a nationwide movement within a few months.

There’s other reporting to support Rashid’s claim. In yesterday’s Post, Karen de Young wrote that the insurgency is forging links with Punjabis:

Security [is] deteriorating rapidly, particularly in the mountains along the Afghan border that harbor al-Qaeda and the Taliban, intelligence chiefs reported, and there were signs that those groups were working with indigenous extremists in Pakistan’s populous Punjabi heartland.

But de Young emphasized that the US intelligence community, which is working overtime on the threat in Pakistan, isn’t too worried:

In briefings last week, senior officials said, President Obama and his National Security Council were told that neither a Taliban takeover nor a military coup was imminent and that the Pakistani nuclear arsenal was safe.

Certainly, the situation is far from secure. But, by all reports, the Pakistani army has launched a counteroffensive against the Taliban in the provinces north and west of Islamabad, and they seem to be readying an attack into Swat, the valley province where the Taliban has seized control. They’ve sent paratroops into Buner province and sent ground troops into Buner in several directions. As many observers have pointed out, Pakistan’s huge armed forces isn’t going to collapse to a rag-tag Islamist threat. Said Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s ambassador in Washington: “They’re not about to take over Pakistan and overcome a one-million-strong army.”

And the future is ominous. As the New York Times reported yesterday, in a brilliant article by Sabrina Tavernese, thousands of madrasas are springing up in Punjab, where they’re brainwashing young Pakistanis. If you want to be really scared, read the whole article. (Remember, this is in Punjab, Pakistan’s heartland, not the wild-West, Pashtun-dominated areas in the northwest and the tribal region.) Here’s an excerpt:

Pakistan’s poorest families have turned to madrasas, or Islamic schools, that feed and house the children while pushing a more militant brand of Islam than was traditional here.

The concentration of madrasas here in southern Punjab has become an urgent concern in the face of Pakistan’s expanding insurgency. The schools offer almost no instruction beyond the memorizing of the Koran, creating a widening pool of young minds that are sympathetic to militancy.

“We are at the beginning of a great storm that is about to sweep the country,” said Ibn Abduh Rehman, who directs the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, an independent organization. “It’s red alert for Pakistan.”

It’s ugly, and getting uglier. But I don’t think it’s panic time yet. And Obey is right to be skeptical. Bring on those conditions, and benchmarks!