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Is the U.S.-Pakistani alliance falling apart?

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Like Mel Gibson's chances of landing the starring role in a Steven Spielberg remake of Fiddler On The Roof, Pakistan's relationship with the US has worsened in recent weeks.

The first noticeable outward sign of growing animosity between the Bush Administration and the Pakistani military dictatorship it refers to as a "long-term strategic partner" and "vital ally in the War on Terror" came in March during President Bush's South Asian tour.

Annoyed that President Bush had offered Pakistan's arch-rival, India, an unprecedented civilian nuclear technology trade deal just days before his arrival in Pakistan, Pakistan's military dictator President Pervez "The Perv" Musharraf responded by throwing the diplomatic protocol equivalent of a temper tantrum: He failed to greet President Bush at the airport.

In his place, The Perv didn't send his prime minister or even his foreign minister. The Perv sent his daughter. Though Bush is hardly the world's most savvy diplomat, the father of Jenna is no doubt aware that sending your daughter to do a president's job was a slap in the face.

The face-slapping apparently continued during the visit. According to reports, Bush upset The Pervman -- and, by extension, the Pakistani military -- by criticizing him for not doing enough to stop Taliban forces from using Pakistan as a recruiting area and safe-haven from which it launches increasingly deadly attacks against Afghan, US and (since they took over) NATO forces in southern Afghanistan.

It may indeed have ticked The Pervster off, but the Bush's frustration with him is justified. Although The Perv is quick to point out that 800 Pakistani soldiers have lost their lives fighting the War on Terror along the Afghan border, those losses have been largely the result of fighting al Qaeda operating in Pakistan's Waziristan province. Taliban forces operating in Pakistan's Baluchistan province have been left largely unopposed by Pakistani forces.

El Perveroni is reluctant to take the Taliban on, partly because sending forces into Baluchistan province might topple his government (which increasingly relies on the support of Islamists sympathetic to the Taliban), and partly because Pakistan is hoping to maintain good relations with the Taliban in the increasingly likely event they reassert at least partial rule in neighboring Afghanistan.

The Bush Administration is also hugely frustrated with The Musharraf-of-Not-Eating-Ham's stridently unhelpful stance on nuclear weapons. In June, Pakistan announced that its investigation into A.Q. Khan's dealings was closed and that, under no circumstances, would US investigators be allowed to question Khan. If The Perv sending his daughter was a slap-to-the-face, that announcement was a kick to the 'nads.

Khan is a nuclear scientist and the so-called father of the Pakistani nuclear weapons program. In 2004, the world discovered that Khan was also the secret baby daddy of North Korea's, Iran's and Libya's (now-defunct) nuclear programs. He even tried to sell weapons to Iraq, but Saddam Hussein turned him down.

American investigators want to interview Khan because they're hoping he can provide critical intelligence for the US-EU effort to stop Iran from building nukes. For example, if we knew what kinds of centrifuge plans Khan sold to Iran, we might have a better idea of when Iran might have enough nuclear materials to build a bomb.

The most recent blow to the US-Pakistan relationship came last month, when the Institute for Science and International Security reported that Pakistan is building a large, new plutonium nuclear reactor.

According to the report, which features several Google Earth-like satellite photos, the plant will be capable of producing 1,000 megawatts of electricity and 200 kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium annually, enough to make 40 to 50 nuclear weapons.

Will Pakistan use the plant to build up its nuclear arsenal? Will it sell weapons-grade plutonium to other countries? Will it do both? Who knows? The White House is downplaying the news by telling reporters that it knew about the reactor long before the report and by stating, "We discourage military use of the facility."

How reassuring.

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