- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 11, 2003

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan The alliance has been tentative from the start denounced by Islamic hard-liners, questioned even by moderates and rife with deep disagreements. Pakistan and the United States make curious companions, as events of recent days have underscored.

But despite a prickly border skirmish, anger over U.S. immigration policies and hard-line opposition to a potential American war in Iraq, Pakistan is vigorously insisting that its anti-terrorism partnership with the United States remains a flexible relationship that benefits both sides.

“Some people want to make some trouble with the relations. They'll fail,” Sheik Rashid Ahmed, the country's information minister, said this week. “Nothing will affect the relationship. This friendship is for all seasons.”

President Pervez Musharraf's government is in the 17th month of a delicate balancing act. On one side is the powerful United States, which relies on Pakistan as a prime ally in the war against terrorism in neighboring Afghanistan.

On the other is a potentially destabilizing cadre of Muslim clerics, whose anti-American, anti-Musharraf invective is capable of rousing tens of thousands of Pakistanis into protests that draw global attention.

And critics have certainly had fodder recently most dramatically over a skirmish at the Afghan-Pakistani frontier Dec. 29 that tested the two governments' commitment to cooperation.

That day, a Pakistani guard shot and wounded an American soldier in the head in eastern Afghanistan's Paktika province, just a few hundred yards from Pakistan's border. The shooting prompted U.S. forces to call an air strike on a building where the border guard was believed hiding.

The U.S. military said the building it hit was in Afghanistan. Islamabad says it is investigating whether at least one bomb landed on its side of the border.

On Sunday, according to Defense Minister Rao Sikandar Iqbal, Pakistan dispatched defense officials to its border with Afghanistan to meet U.S. military officials and tell them not to enter Pakistani territory without permission.

“All activities in Pakistani territory are being conducted by Pakistani forces alone,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Aziz Ahmed Khan said.

At the same time, officials at various levels worked to smooth the tempest. “To make this fuss about it is really uncalled for,” Mr. Khan said as he and others pledged continued cooperation with American forces to capture al Qaeda and Taliban fugitives in eastern Afghanistan.

Pakistan's message was clear: It will support the United States, but will not publicly, at least kowtow. To do so would risk additional fury from hard-liners who have already denounced Gen. Musharraf as a traitor and a toady, something Pakistan's unpopular government can ill afford.

President Bush made Pakistan his high-profile ally just days after the September 11 attacks. He immediately asked Gen. Musharraf for cooperation in the war on terrorism, and Gen. Musharraf's quick agreement won international praise but condemnation at home.

That chorus, scattered but loud, has swelled as the U.S. military prepares for a possible war in Iraq, which prompted sundry protests across the country on Jan. 3. The border incident didn't help.

“It's a matter of shame: America attacked our areas, and we did nothing,” said Riaz Durrani, a senior leader of Muthida Majlis-e-Amal, or United Action Forum, a hard-line six-party religious alliance.

“The whole nation should wake up before it's too late to oust the Americans and to get rid of the puppets who are serving the interests of their American masters,” he said Monday night.

Also angering ordinary Pakistanis and covered heavily in the media here is an American program requiring 24,200 men ages 16 and older from 20 countries who live in the United States to visit federal offices to be photographed and fingerprinted.

Thousands of visitors from Pakistan have until Feb. 21 to register a fact that many here perceive as a slap to a people doing their utmost to help the United States fight terrorism.

“Pakistan is helping out and it's not being treated right,” complained Mohammed Arshed, a businessman from the central Pakistani city of Gujrat who has many friends living in the United States.

A few towns over, Pakistan's relationship with America weighed heavily this week on Mohammed Asghar, a Lahore jeweler who says his photo was mistakenly included in an FBI warning about foreign-born men entering the United States illegally.

Mr. Asghar, who has acknowledged he tried to enter Britain on a forged visa last year, was waiting nervously for a visit from American agents and growing more desperate to prove he's not a terrorist.

“I feel like I am standing on the gallows and waiting to be hanged,” said Mr. Asghar. But he said he was not angry with Pakistan's ally. “I am not interested in an apology. I just want to be cleared.”

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