Akbar Ahmed: Lose lawless tribal areas and you lose Pakistan itself

The "existential threat" that Pakistan now faces, according to Hillary Clinton, is overstated. There is a functioning political, civil and military structure in Pakistan that will prevent any total collapse of the state. The impulse for democracy is deep and goes back to the creation of the state in 1947. Pakistan's founding father, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, had a vision of a modern Muslim nation with a strong emphasis on womens' rights and civil liberties for minorities, but this vision is under greater threat than ever. Successive Pakistani leaders have, over the decades, failed to translate Jinnah's spirit into reality, while the structures he put in place have been weakened and corrupted. The emergence of the Taliban is one consequence of this.

The Taliban's spread from the Swat Valley into the neighbouring district of Buner is not entirely surprising: geographically, it is an appendix of Swat. The fact that Buner is close, as the crow flies, to Islamabad has set off alarm bells. But the bigger danger is what happens in Mardan. The most fertile and heavily populated part of the North-West Frontier Province is vital because it opens the gate to Peshawar. And if Pakistan loses control of Peshawar, the gateway for US supply lines to its troops in Afghanistan, it would be checkmate for the Western troops there.

Pakistan's government capitulated to the Taliban over Swat and must now re-take the territory, re-impose the writ of the state and the rule of law. It can have no legitimacy if it does not impose its authority on Swat, but a military solution is not enough. Pakistan must establish a civil service structure and an independent judiciary in Swat and back it with full police authority.

The US, meanwhile, must stop hammering Pakistan, its ally, in public, as Mrs Clinton has been doing. This merely fuels anti-Americanism in Pakistan. Barack Obama has said the most dangerous place in the world is Pakistan's tribal areas. Why? Because if you lose them, then you lose Pakistan, followed by Afghanistan. So, Mr Obama, in private, should sit down with Asif Ali Zardari, the Pakistani President, and demand that in exchange for all the US aid he is promising ($5bn a year), Mr Zardari immediately imposes law and order in the Swat Valley, along with a genuine reform of the madrassa system. America has to understand that Pakistan requires a long-term comitment and a drastic change of strategy. The present hit or missapproach will not do. The stakes are just too high.

The writer holds the chair in Islamic Studies at the American University in Washington and was Pakistan's High Commissioner to the UK