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U.S. offers new role for Pakistan

Expansion of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship will require overcoming significant public and political mistrust in both countries. Officials said that they recognize the difficulty in delivering on either U.S. promises or threats, and that "our leverage over Pakistan is very limited," the senior administration official said.

At the same time, although the administration's goal is to demonstrate a new level and steadfastness of support, short-term U.S. demands may threaten Pakistan's already fragile political stability.

"It's going to be a game of cat-and-mouse with them for a while," another official said, adding that "what we're trying to do is to force them to recalculate" where their advantage lies.

The Pakistan strategy is complicated by a number of factors, including the fact that any indication of increased U.S. involvement there generates broad mistrust. Zardari's political weakness is an additional hazard for a new bilateral relationship. He is disliked by the military and is challenged by the political opposition and his own prime minister; he also remains under a cloud of long-standing corruption charges. Less than a third of Pakistan's population voices approval for him in polls. Obama is even less popular there, with approval ratings in the low double digits.

Many of the broad powers that Zardari assumed from his predecessor, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who seized power in a 1999 military coup and was forced to resign last year, are being whittled away. On Friday, Zardari turned over control of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal to Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, who is held in much higher favor by the military.

Zardari's Musharraf-era powers to fire the elected government and appoint top military officials are also under challenge, and a law protecting government officials from corruption prosecution expired Saturday. On Sunday, the leading political opposition group called for him to give up the additional powers, and Zardari, who had pledged to do so, said he will act "soon." The administration expects Zardari's position to continue to weaken, leaving him as a largely ceremonial president even if he manages to survive in office.

Senior U.S. officers, including the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, Adm. Mike Mullen, have made repeated relationship-building trips to Pakistan, and training programs in this country for Pakistani officers are expanding after being moribund for years.

U.S. officials have long referred to Pakistani military and intelligence officers who are sympathetic to or actively support insurgent groups fighting in Afghanistan as "rogue elements." More recently, they have described those relationships as more direct and institutional within a divided military. "For the things that we care about," a U.S. official said, "the real decision-maker is the military." It has long been hedging its bets in Afghanistan; the military has positioned itself to prevent inroads by India in the event of a U.S. withdrawal, and against a 30-year history of being used and then rejected by shifting U.S. policy aims.

"Our game is to convince them that our commitment to Afghanistan and the region is long-term," the official said of the military. "We're not going to pack up our bags and leave them as soon as we're done. We have to create a situation in which they see a much more positive interest in closer relations with us than they do in trying to play us. But it requires time."

India is skeptical of any U.S. involvement in its relationship with Pakistan. Bilateral attempts to resolve the long-standing border dispute in Kashmir were put on hold after last year's terrorist attacks in Mumbai, which were blamed on Lashkar-e-Taiba.

The group has long been active in the Kashmir conflict and is said to have close ties to Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency.

Obama and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh treaded carefully on the issue in public during Singh's state visit to Washington last week. "It is not the place of the United States to try to, from the outside, resolve all those conflicts," Obama said during their news conference here. "On the other hand, we want to be encouraging of ways in which both India and Pakistan can feel secure."

Correspondent Pamela Constable in Islamabad contributed to this report.

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