Among the alliances that characterize the world order, perhaps none is more fragile than the strategic relationship between the United States and Pakistan.
Carved out of Great Britain's colonial empire in 1947, Pakistan was created as an Islamic republic, a Muslim buffer state between India and China to the east, Afghanistan to the north, and Iran on the west.
Pakistan's deep roots in fundamentalist Islam and ancient tribalism have shaped its place in world affairs, which now is characterized by an unusual - and uneasy - partnership with the U.S. in the war on terrorism and the seemingly futile hunt for Osama bin Laden.
Pakistan is ruled by a military government that is nominally pro-American, but the majority of its 162 million people believe that the U.S. is waging a crusade on Islam through military intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Over the past month, this tenuous relationship has come to life for readers of The Blade through the eyes of S. Amjad Hussain in a series printed in our Behind the News section.
A native of Pakistan, Dr. Hussain, a retired surgeon at the Medical University of Ohio, regularly returns to his homeland. What he found on his most recent visit was a country on a tightrope, balanced between enormous American pressure, leveraged by economic aid, to help combat terrorism, and the religious and tribal kinship most of its people feel with those the U.S. is fighting.
These conflicting pressures make Pakistan at best a reluctant ally, one that could quickly become an enemy should the military government of President Pervez Musharraf collapse.
Upping the ante is Pakistan's continuing enmity with India over the disputed Kashmir territory. Add to the mix nuclear weapons, which each of these old foes now possesses, and the outlook could be troublesome to say the least.
The Bush Administration depends upon Pakistan for tactical support in the Afghanistan campaign, which still occupies some 17,000 U.S. military personnel but in four years has failed to locate Bin Laden in the rugged territory between Pakistan and Afghanistan where he is said to be hiding.
Americans may be frustrated that the terrorist mastermind remains at large, but they should not be surprised. In that part of the world, it's hard to tell friends from enemies.