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Deadly air strikes another setback for U.S., Pakistan relations Add to ...

Hostility between America and the world’s most unstable nuclear-armed nation just got worse.

While President Obama rattles a sabre in Tehran’s direction from time to time over its nuclear ambitions, the reality is that Pakistan, already armed with scores of nuclear warheads and ready-to-fire missiles, poses a far graver threat.

The nightmare is that Islamic jihadists seize control of Pakistan’s ready-made nuclear arsenal. To avoid that worst-case scenario, America has long propped up Pakistan’s military and turned a blind eye to its nuclear proliferation.

This weekend’s inexplicable and deadly attacks by U.S. warplanes that killed dozens of Pakistani soldiers in a bloody two-hour series of airstrikes has further wrecked already damaged relations.

The attack – followed by abject U.S. apologies and nearly incandescent Pakistani rage – is only the latest in a series of blows to a relationship once regarded as vital to victory in the ‘war on terror’ as well as any real prospect of a peaceful secure Afghanistan.

Earlier this year, Pakistan’s top brass were shamed and humiliated by the daring U.S. raid that killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. He had been living in a Pakistani military garrison town only a golf shot from the nation’s elite officer academy. Worse, the American raid entirely eluded Pakistan’s air defences, supposedly on high alert over any potential attack by India.

That raid added to Pakistani outrage over the killing by a U.S. CIA agent of two Pakistani civilians in Lahore. Washington’s demands for his repatriation incensed Pakistanis, many of whom loathe what they regard as America disregard for Pakistan’s sovereignty.

President Obama’s escalation of a missile-firing drone campaign to kill suspected al-Qaeda and Taliban fugitives in Pakistan has exacerbated those feelings, even if Islamabad has tacitly agreed to the use of pilotless Predators and even allowed them to be secretly based in the country.

Then, in September, America’s top soldier publicly said what many in Washington have secretly believed for years: that Pakistan’s powerful security agencies were covertly arming and assisting the violent and radical Haqqani group that has staged many of the most spectacular attacks against President Hamid Karzai’s shaky regime in Afghanistan.

America long ago opted to overlook Pakistan’s odious record of shopping nuclear secrets to outlaw states, including North Korea, Syria and Iran. Instead it accepted Islamabad’s claim that the proliferation scheme was the work of individual rogue scientists. That pragmatic tradeoff, coupled with pouring tens of billions in military aid into Pakistan’s coup-prone military, was intended to keep Pakistan as a loyal and reliable ally in the effort to pacify Afghanistan and build a functioning democracy there.

But U.S. interests don’t mesh with Pakistan’s where the long view holds that America will tire, again, of meddling in Afghanistan and pull out, leaving regional players like Islamabad to jockey for power.

That requires Pakistan to stay close to the Taliban who may return to power.

The lofty American goals for Afghanistan have been largely jettisoned by the Obama administration. In their place is a presidential promise to start pulling troops out next summer and a vague hope that the Karzai regime will be strong enough to hold off the resurgent Taliban by 2014.

Meanwhile, relations between America and Pakistan have gone from bad to worse.

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