The news from Pakistan is generally bad news.
In the past week, which was far from atypical, suicide bombers attacked a court building in the northwestern city of Peshawar taking hostages and killing four people.
In the southern city of Karachi the director of a renowned social program working in the megacity's poorest neighborhoods was shot and killed. And gunmen kidnapped two female Czech tourists in southwestern Pakistan.
But this past week also saw more than a glimmer of good news from Pakistan: Saturday, March 16 marked an extraordinary moment in Pakistani history, as this is the first time a civilian government has served its entire five-year term (from 2008 to 2013). And, for the first time in its history, the Pakistani military appears unwilling to mount a coup against the civilian government. The military has successfully executed three coups and attempted a number of others since Pakistan's independence in 1947.
Today the army understands that the most recent coup by General Pervez Musharraf who took power in 1999 has tarnished its brand.
Musharraf hung on to power for almost a decade and his imposition of emergency rule in 2007 triggered massive street protests and eventually his ouster.
On Saturday, Musharaf announced he is returning to Pakistan from self-imposed exile on March 24 to run in elections that are to be held two months from now.
In a telling sign that Pakistan is moving into something of a new era, Pakistani military officials are not supportive of Musharraf's return and nor is much of the Pakistani public.
On May 11, Pakistanis will go to the polls to elect a new civilian government for a five-year term, and there is now a good prospect for continued, uninterrupted civilian government until at least 2018.
In terms of Pakistan's long-term health and stability, the fact that the country is in an unprecedented era of lengthy civilian rule will help erode the Pakistani military's present position as having uncontested supremacy in all matters that relate to the country's national security, in particular its relations with India and with Afghanistan.
The military has backed insurgent and terrorist groups in India and Afghanistan to maintain its perceived interests in these countries. A more confident civilian Pakistani government will, hopefully, over time be less likely to support these militant groups.
Another great opportunity (and potential peril) will present itself in Afghanistan, when Afghans go to the polls in April 2014 for the third presidential election since the fall of the Taliban.
If that election is perceived as being relatively free and fair this would go a long way to ease tensions in the Afghan body politic, increase Afghanistan's overall security and reassure both Afghan and outside investors that the country has a promising future.
On the other hand, if the 2014 election is seen as unfair, corrupted and is deeply contested, this would likely precipitate a vicious circle of conflict, deteriorating security and capital flight.
The United States, therefore, should do everything it can to provide technical and security assistance to make these elections go as well as possible.
But unlike what happened in the run-up to the 2009 Afghan presidential election, U.S. officials should not get involved in privately backing certain candidates. This private support had the unintended effect of splitting the opposition to Afghan President Hamid Karzai, as key leaders of the anti-Karzai opposition all believed they were "America's candidate." It also deeply alienated Karzai, whose occasional diatribes against the United States are best understood as due to his lingering resentment over this issue.
A key aspect of U.S. and NATO planning for the Afghan presidential elections in April 2014 is that given the fact that there are no discernible front-runners to succeed Karzai, there may be no clear winner who attains more than 50% of the vote, which under Afghan electoral laws would necessitate a runoff election between the two leading candidates.
Security, technical and economic assistance for the Afghan elections should be prepared to extend into summer 2014, because it is not clear as yet when that runoff might be held.
Last year the United States and Afghanistan negotiated a Strategic Partnership Agreement, which ensures America will continue to play a supporting role there until 2024.
The exact details of what that agreement means in practice are still being hammered out (according to U.S. officials, these negotiations may take until November) but they are likely to include not only significant U.S. aid but also many thousands of American soldiers stationed in Afghanistan for years into the future as a guarantor of the country's stability.
The U.S. military has given President Obama a range of options under which as few as 6,000 or as many as 20,000 soldiers would remain in Afghanistan after 2014. Those forces would work as advisers to the Afghan army and mount special operations raids against the Taliban and al Qaeda.
Whatever the final decision is on troop levels, the key point is that the Obama administration and other U.S. officials should emphasize very clearly that the thousands of American soldiers who will remain in Afghanistan are there to support the United States' long-term partnership agreement with Afghanistan -- and that its life extends well beyond 2014.
This is important to emphasize, because Afghans have been understandably confused by some of the different signals the Obama administration has made about its commitment to Afghanistan in the past.
Major confusion arose after President Obama's December 2009 announcement of the "surge" of 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, which was coupled with the announcement that those troops would begin to withdraw beginning in July 2011. In many Afghans' minds, the withdrawal date became more important than the fact that during his first term Obama actually tripled the number of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan from around 30,000 to a total of 90,000.
When the Obama administration announces the number of soldiers who will remain in Afghanistan post-2014, it should emphasize that the U.S. commitment to Afghanistan is set to last until at least 2024.