It is good news. President Zardari "is a changed man" and is said to have improved as a leader. This is the "breaking news" story emanating after a group of notable journalists and columnists had a two-hour discussion-cum-dinner meeting with our president this last Monday in Islamabad. According to an eminent journalist, he found the president a totally different person compared to his earlier impressions of him as he no longer talks in first person, and now admits mistakes and sounds practical. Another prominent journalist captioned his banner-line story saying: "The president is learning on the job, and is learning well." In his assessment, "the president has started changing himself somewhat" and is now willing to listen to others and register their viewpoint. But he would still not relent on what he thinks is the "correct course" for him. He did admit, albeit after lot of argument, that the government was suffering "governance problems" and had become weak because of its policies. It was indeed a well-choreographed "curtain raiser" before President Zardari goes to Washington to join Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai at a tripartite summit which US President Obama has convened on May 6 and 7 to discuss the "operationalisation" of his new AfPak strategy. Whether or not the president is now a changed person is immaterial for us as far as the intent or importance of the Washington summit is concerned. What will be important for him in Washington is not whether he listens to the other side well and whether he admits his mistakes or does not relent on what he thinks is the correct course for him. Nor would anyone there be interested in what Pakistan's president has been learning on the job. Obama and Karzai would only expect of him to guarantee them security from their albatross. Both would also like to have assurances of Pakistan keeping India free of "terrorism." This is a tall order for someone whose own country is on fire, and is standing on the apocalyptic brink. The foremost challenge for President Zardari in this situation is not what we are required to do for others' interests; it is what we ought to do to serve our own national interests and to safeguard our sovereign independence and national dignity. This will be the real test of President Zardari's maturity as a leader of this country and his ability to present our case meaningfully at the Washington summit. Zardari is an elected head of state, and unlike his predecessor, he should not be taking arbitrary decisions on the fate and future of the nation. General Musharraf claimed in his book In the Line of Fire that in all difficult moments, he felt so "lonely" that the fateful "buck" really stopped with him. For an elected president, the "buck" must not stop with him. In a democratic spirit, he should have at least met with major political leaders, both within and outside the National Assembly and sounded them out on what should be our own strategy on Obama's AfPak strategy. That would have reinforced his hands in making Pakistan's case to his interlocutors more effectively. Obama recognises that military force alone is not a solution to the problems in this region. It is a welcome departure from the Bush-Mush policy of relying solely on military option. But there are other aspects that cannot be ignored in pursuing this new strategy. Pakistan is now seen as the real Afghan issue. It is the single greatest challenge facing the new American president. The US cannot afford to see Pakistan fail, nor can it ignore the extremists operating in Pakistan's tribal areas. Vice-President Joe Biden has himself summed up our case well. He says no strategy for Afghanistan will work without Pakistan's assistance, and the US must strengthen its cooperation with the people and government of Pakistan, help them stabilise their tribal areas and promote economic development and opportunity throughout the country. President Zardari should simply ask Obama to heed to his vice president's advice and also not forget that Pakistan has already staked everything in supporting this war. Pakistan, however, is perturbed by America's indifference to its legitimate concerns. The US in recent years has been targeting Pakistan with military incursions and drone attacks in our tribal areas without realising that a country cannot be treated both as a target and a partner while fighting a common enemy. Drone attacks and military incursions across the Durand Line must stop lest they further deepen anti-American sentiment in Pakistan with greater sympathy for the Taliban in the affected areas. Our problems are further aggravated by a complex regional configuration with ominous Indo-US nexus, India's growing influence in Afghanistan with serious nuisance potential against Pakistan's security interests in the very heart of its backyard. Pakistan has been complaining for some time that India was using its presence in Afghanistan to foment trouble in Balochistan and its tribal areas. This makes India an inextricable factor to be addressed as part of the new AfPak strategy. President Obama understands this linkage. He knew that no strategy or roadmap for durable peace in the region including in Afghanistan would be comprehensive without focusing on the underlying causes of conflict and instability. In a pre-election television interview, President Obama had promised to encourage India to solve the Kashmir dispute with Pakistan, so that Islamabad can better cooperate with the United States on Afghanistan. But curiously, the Mumbai terrorist attacks in November seem to have shifted Obama's focus. His special representative was named only for Afghanistan and Pakistan. But one thing is clear. Richard Holbrooke's mission would remain unaddressed without taking the Indian factor into account. The role that Pakistan and Afghanistan are now expected to play to make the world safer and more peaceful is inevitably conditioned by the overall strategic balance in the region. The effectiveness of their role and capability in this process will suffer if other conflicts and disputes continue to engage and divert their attention and resources. Unfortunately, the India-Pakistan dialogue process is stalled now. Both countries are back to their traditional confrontational mode. This does not portend well for the AfPak mission. Against this backdrop, any regional approach to AfPak imbroglio would remain incomplete without addressing the India-Pakistan issues which regretfully are now finding a manifestation in the Afghan theatre. To keep Pakistan focused on the larger challenges in our region, the Kashmir issue has to be resolved. But the US involvement should only be as a facilitator of the "composite dialogue." A final settlement of the Kashmir issue will eventually have to be worked out between India and Pakistan through peaceful means in conformity with the wishes of the Kahsmiri people who are the final arbiters of their destiny. Meanwhile, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, who returned from a visit to Islamabad last week, also believes that Obama's AfPak Plan is not a real strategy for Pakistan. In an interview with USA Today, Kerry said that Pakistan is in a moment of peril but there is not in place yet an adequate policy or plan to deal with this situation. He advised the Obama administration to stop using the term "AfPak" to describe a unified strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, because in his view this acronym does a disservice to both countries and to the policy. But Obama's strategy is not the only problem. Domestic political instability in Pakistan is also a big handicap in dealing with the armed threat from militant extremists. Washington has been abuzz with expressions of fear and anxiety over the situation in the aftermath of the Swat deal. At a news conference this week, President Obama said that he's "gravely concerned about the situation in Pakistan," not about an imminent Taliban takeover, but about what he called the fragility of Pakistan's civilian government and its ability to deliver basic services and "gain the support and the loyalty of their people." Poor governance indeed is our problem. But in the ultimate analysis, no strategy or roadmap will work in eliminating militant extremism in Afghanistan and Pakistan without focusing on the underlying political and socio-economic problems. We will have to win the hearts and minds of those susceptible to sympathise or support militant extremism. We need a well-coordinated strategy involving coercive as well as political and economic approach in addressing this problem. Both Afghanistan and Pakistan will require adequate political and economic support in overcoming their problems. The writer is a former foreign secretary