Coming on the heels of the imposition of Sharia rule in the Swat Valley in Pakistan comes news that the Pakistani Taliban has seized a foothold in the Buner district, a mere 70 miles from the capital Islamabad. Worse, the Pakistani military seems largely unwilling to confront this rising Islamist tide.

From the New York Times:

Yet Pakistani authorities deployed just several hundred poorly paid and equipped constabulary forces to Buner, who were repelled in a clash with the insurgents, leaving one police officer dead.

The limited response set off fresh scrutiny of Pakistan’s military, a force with 500,000 soldiers and a similar number of reservists. The army receives $1 billion in American military aid each year but has repeatedly declined to confront the Taliban-led insurgency, even as it has bled out of Pakistan’s self-governed tribal areas into Pakistan proper in recent months.

The military remains fixated on training and deploying its soldiers to fight the country’s archenemy, India. It remains ill equipped for counterinsurgency, analysts say, and top officers are deeply reluctant to be pressed into action against insurgents who enjoy family, ethnic and religious ties with many Pakistanis.

There are at least two dynamics at work here.

First, much of the Pakistani elite remains focused on the confrontation with India. This explains why the army remains oriented toward that contingency. It also explains why Pakistan continues to tacitly support groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba, the perpetrators of the devastating terror attack on Mumbai last year.

Second, it is likely that elements of the Pakistani military see the spread of the Pakistani Taliban as an opportunity. It does demonstrate the weakness of the civilian government, and it may ultimately justify the re-imposition of military rule. The logic assume that the military thinks it can crush the insurgency wherever it chooses to do so, but considers it politically inconvenient at this moment.

The problem is that as long as rationale number 1 (the focus on India) obfuscates rationale number 2 (the military’s positioning to return to power) there is no way for either effective civilian control of the Pakistani military nor of organized resistance to the spread of the Pakistani Taliban.

The answer is clear, albeit not simple: The United States has to make a priority out of trying to reduce Indian-Pakistani tensions.

There is a strong consensus in the United States on trying to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. But I would argue that resolving the India-Pakistan dispute is both more important and potentially more strategically useful. While the Israeli-Palestinian dispute clearly poisons politics in the Middle East, the consequences are mostly suffered by the Palestinians and Israelis themselves. Furthermore, because our main interest in that issue is in trying to improve the image of the United States in the Arab world, we are likely to be disappointed by the reaction to any deal that keeps Israel largely intact. The Camp David Accords, we should remember, radicalized politics in Egypt leading to the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar El Sadat. We are still dealing with the consequences today as the most visible leader of al Qaeda today is Ayman al-Zawahiri, who at one time lead Egyptian Islamic Jihad, the group that assassinated Sadat.

In contrast to our imprecise interest in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute as a way to improve our image, we have more concrete interests vis-a-vis Pakistan. We want to encourage Pakistan to retool its military to combat Islamist insurgents and ensure the security of its nuclear weapons in the case further gain by the Taliban. The only way to achieve these goals is by easing tensions with India.

Reduced tensions with India would strengthen civilian control in Pakistan. It would allow the Pakistani military to refocus on the domestic insurgency. It would reduce incentives to support radical groups like Laskar-e-Taiba. Furthermore, the only way to move forward on the issue of nuclear safeguards would be in conjunction with the adoption of like measures in India.

In short, many of the dynamics we hope to engender in Pakistan can likely only occur in conjunction with India. The road to improvement in Pakistan runs through New Dehli. And yet, as far as resolving regional conflicts go, our efforts in promoting a solution there seem dramatically less urgent than in trying to fix the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

Dr. Bernard I. Finel, an Atlantic Council contributing editor,is a senior fellow at the American Security Project. This essay was originally published at ASP’s FlashPoint blog.