Leading article: Cameron must clear the air with our ally

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The Independent Online

The visit by the President of Pakistan to Britain, which starts tomorrow, will inevitably be overshadowed by the fallout generated by David Cameron's unexpectedly frank remarks about the ambivalent relationship of certain forces in Pakistan towards the Taliban in Afghanistan.

The Prime Minister was right to speak out on a subject that has frustrated British and American intelligence for several years, even if his choice of location from which to deliver his sermon, namely India, was questionable in terms of sensitivity to Pakistan's national feeling.

This week, Mr Cameron must make use of his meeting with Asif Ali Zardari to deliver a more nuanced version of those off-the-cuff words. Given the strength of the outcry in Pakistan over his remarks in Bangalore, and the numerous calls on the President to cancel the visit, he must express appreciation for Mr Zardari's decision to come at all. He must reassure his guest that his strictures were reserved for rogue elements within the Pakistan establishment, especially in the military and the intelligence service, the ISI, not for the civilian government that Mr Zardari represents and which the Islamist extremists detest and desire to overthrow.

Mr Cameron should let it be known that he is aware of the strength of ill-feeling among almost all shades of opinion in Pakistan about the West's conduct of the war in Afghanistan, and can understand why so many people resent what they see as the West's use of their country as a kind of battering ram against the Taliban.

He must try to counter the growing suspicion in Pakistan, not merely among Islamist radicals but also among the most pro-Western members of society, that Britain's new-found interest in wooing India necessarily implies a downgrading of the relationship with its less economically successful neighbour. Were this sentiment to grow and become fixed over time it would be deeply unfortunate. No British government can forget that this country has developed an umbilical demographic relationship with Pakistan as a result of which tensions between London and Islamabad almost invariably release other tensions in Bradford, Birmingham and elsewhere.

Meanwhile, our enthusiasm for India's rise as an economic giant, and our interest in the trade possibilities there, while entirely justifiable, must not lead to an underestimation of Pakistan's immense geographic and strategic importance in the struggle to contain Islamic extremism in the region.

Pakistan is the cornerstone in this apparently unending struggle, not India. Since Barack Obama's administration took over in Washington, the US has woken up to this. Aware of the depth of American unpopularity in Pakistan, the US is more sensible now of the danger of taking Pakistan's goodwill for granted, which is why the Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, announced the earmarking of substantial sums in aid for targeted civilians project such as dams, electricity and schools.

It might help assuage Pakistan's nettled feelings were Britain to follow suit and announce something similar. As some aid money is going to be freed up by a reduction of projects in India in future, it might be worth considering transferring those funds across the border, and so reminding ordinary people in Pakistan that we don't merely see their country as an all-purpose frontline and launching pad for military strikes.

Such an announcement would rebound to the credit of Pakistan's government and president, going some way to countering the growing feeling that they are the West's stooges – better at taking orders than at delivering tangible benefits for their own people. When Mr Zardari returns home, he must do so with his head high, not looking even further weakened. Were that to happen, it would only embolden those same hardline elements in Pakistan that are the common enemy of both Britain and the Pakistan government.