A relationship under strain

FOR the first time in nearly a decade, the US is hosting a Pakistani leader who is NOT Musharraf. Prime Minister Gilani is supposed to be the elected leader of his country. He was picked up by the governing PPP and the alliance that includes Nawaz Sharif's PML after the extraordinary upheavals and elections earlier this year.

You would think the historic mandate this government were gifted following the assassination of Benazir Bhutto would make Prime Minister Gilani an effective leader at home and abroad.

Unfortunately, this is not the case. As Gilani visits Washington for his first high profile encounter with the US leadership, he is dismissed as a lightweight at home and is taken with little seriousness abroad.

His first 100 days have been remarkably unremarkable after all those grand promises by the coalition. No government has perhaps ever generated so much hope and optimism and then crashed to such all-round disappointment.

But if this is the state of affairs, credit should largely go to Gilani's own party and allies. He has been given an impossibly difficult task with little or no power. His hands are virtually tied behind his back even as his long-harried people hope for miracles and deliverance from their woes.

But the most difficult challenge Gilani faces is on external front, especially from the increasingly impatient Americans. He is in Washington at a time when there are growing calls in the US media and establishment to "deal with Pakistan."

Even an otherwise reasonable politician like Barack Obama has to be seen to be plumping for 'military action' inside Pakistan to bring peace to Afghanistan that he insists is the 'main front' of the US war.

During his interaction with President Bush and other US leaders, Gilani is sure to be pressed all over again to "do more" for America's terror war.

Again, the Pak leader finds himself on a sticky wicket in dealing with the US as well because even though he is the elected leader of Pakistan, the buck still stops elsewhere — perhaps with Musharraf, with the army and PPP boss Zardari.

Which is why the PM is unlikely to find the going easy in Washington. Nevertheless, he has no choice but try his best to persuade the friends in White House that Pakistan is indeed doing all it can to fight the militants along the Pak-Afghan border.

In fact, if he has to win the respect of his people back home — and the US allies — he will have to assert himself warning his hosts to stop pushing the nuclear-armed Pakistan around like a banana republic.

The country has already paid an exponential price by joining Bush's war, the most recent being the assassination of Benazir, not to mention the thousands of innocent civilians who have been caught in the crossfire of militants and security forces. So the least the US politicians can do to acknowledge Pakistan's contribution is stop lecturing and demonising it.

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