Pakistan grieves for its sepoys: Ahmed Rashid explains why Islamabad cannot afford to cut its losses and pull out of Somalia

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THE PAGES of yesterday's newspapers in Pakistan resembled paper tombstones for 23 of the country's soldiers, killed in Somalia. Many of them were from the tiny rock-strewn villages of the Salt Range mountains in central Punjab, where two-fifths of the army's recruiting is carried out. None were officers - only sepoys, as they are still called in a throwback to the days of the Raj.

The list had been released to the press before the families had been informed. After reading her newspaper, my ageing mother, who lives in the Salt Range, sent her driver to the village of Padrar, 25 miles (40km) away, to tell Nasim Bibi that her husband was dead. The scene was all the more heartrending because nobody in the village knew what the soldiers were doing in Somalia in the first place.

Last year, when Islamabad agreed to send troops to Somalia, the Bush administration was threatening to put Pakistan on the list of states sponsoring terrorism because of its alleged support for militants fighting Indian security forces in Kashmir.

According to sources in Pakistan, the Pentagon decided to help its oldest military ally in Asia, using its influence to give Pakistani troops a role in Somalia before American forces went in. The deal, which largely bypassed the government of Nawaz Sharif, was aimed at improving Pakistan's image internationally and in the US Congress.

Islamic fundamentalist parties protested, saying Pakistani troops were being used at the behest of the 'Great Satan' against fellow Muslims. The sepoys, they added, were being treated like cannon fodder: their conditions and rations were in every way inferior to those of the Americans, they had no protective armour and no aircraft at their disposal.

That protest has now caught fire again. Qazi Hussain Ahmed, head of the Jamiat Islami, yesterday called for the withdrawal of Pakistani troops, saying they were 'only serving the interests of US imperialism in Somalia and its neighbouring Muslim country, Sudan'. One journalist wrote: 'If so many American GIs had been killed, the Seventh Fleet would have been sent in by now, but who cares about dead Pakistanis?'

The government will stick to its UN commitment. It is the highest-profile role Pakistan has in the international community, and one Islamabad cannot afford to relinquish. Yesterday - when Pakistani peace-keepers also came under fire in Cambodia - the Foreign Minister, Mohammed Sadique Khan Kanju, told the National Assembly that Pakistan remained committed to the UN force in Somalia.

But all this means nothing to Nasim Bibi, who had never heard of Somalia and will never see her husband again.