Letter from Pakistan

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Rizwan Atta looks at the growing tensions between the US and Pakistan and the outbreak of struggles from below

US secretary of state Hillary Clinton met Pakistan's foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar in London on the sidelines of the Somalia conference in late February to discuss the damaged relations between the two countries. Clinton said Pakistan was too important for her country to turn its back on. This eagerness is not without cause and has a history.

For almost half the period since independence Pakistan has been ruled by military dictatorships, with US support playing a pivotal role. Pervez Musharraf, who came to power in a coup, became a US favourite after he joined the "war on terror". Another former dictator, Zia ul-Haq, enjoyed US support for joining the proxy war fought through Islamists against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.

But even after the return of a civilian government, things were still "going well". But then a US operation inside Pakistan killed Osama bin Laden on the doorstep of a military training academy. This created a shock wave, including among lower ranks of the army, and led to huge questions about the nature of Pakistan's relationship with the US.

And last November a Nato attack killed 24 Pakistani soldiers at a border post with Afghanistan, leading to a further deterioration in relations. In response Pakistan suspended Nato's use of land routes through Pakistan to resupply its military in Afghanistan. This forced the US and Nato to turn to costly northern supply routes from Central Asian states.

Pakistan, especially the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), is now constantly blamed by the US for supporting certain groups fighting Nato forces in Afghanistan.

But for the US, facing difficulties in Afghanistan, it is hard to abandon the alliance with this key border state. The same is true for the Pakistani elite, who have benefited from their alliance with the US over decades. So the Pakistani government and the military find it hard to avoid condemning the actions taken by the US, a country seen as unwanted by ordinary people. But the "good old days" are over now, and changing realities are forcing both countries to change their "rules of engagement". Pakistan now wants to move closer to other states which are competing for influence in Afghanistan to reduce its dependency on the US, while some voices have recently appeared in the US complaining about human rights violations in the province of Balochistan. The US may try to use the genuine Baloch struggle for emancipation as a lever to put pressure on Pakistan.

The relationship between the governing Pakistan Peoples' Party (PPP) and the powerful military establishment has soured many times but has not ended in a coup d'├ętat. The military is not in a position to rule alone in a country with so many problems, so indirect pressure is considered the best solution. Parliamentarians, whenever pressed, prefer to retreat to save the system. But the problem is that the system is not delivering.

Prices of almost all basic necessities are going up. A recent report by Save the Children says over a third of Pakistani families have been forced to cut back on their food intake due to high prices and other financial pressures. The situation in areas affected by floods in the last two years is even worse.

Imran Khan, the former Pakistan cricket captain turned politician, has emerged as a leading opponent of the US "war on terror" and Pakistan's role as a frontline state. He has persistently criticised corruption and called for an "independent" foreign policy and has been very vocal against both the PPP and the main opposition party, the Pakistan Muslim League (N). Large numbers have been attracted to Khan's public rallies. His Tehreek-e-Insaf (Movement for Justice) party is popular among youth, the lower middle class and casual labourers.

Increasing economic problems are bringing working people onto the streets. The past few years have seen many spontaneous protests by workers in textiles, telecommunications, energy, health, education and other sectors. The irony is that the foreign media prefer to show demonstrations by religious extremists, and local media generally plays down these struggles.

Rizwan Atta is a left wing journalist in Pakistan