ISLAMABAD// As Yousaf Raza Gilani, Pakistan's prime minister, met with the US president yesterday, the truism that Pakistan is ruled by "Allah, army and America", in that order, was being amply demonstrated. On the eve of his official visit to the United States, Mr Gilani issued an order bringing the country's premier spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), under the control of the interior ministry and therefore more fully under civilian command.
Just hours later, the government was forced to reverse the decision after the army and the president, Pervez Musharraf, a former army chief, voiced their displeasure. In unusually candid words, Maj Gen Athar Abbas, an army spokesman, called the proposed new arrangement "unworkable" and the result of "miscommunication". "The president of Pakistan, the armed forces and intelligence services have conspired to humiliate him [Mr Gilani] and have exposed that they control national security policy in Pakistan, not the elected government and certainly not the prime minister," said John McCreary, a former Pentagon analyst.
Mr Gilani, never considered a strong prime minister, is sandwiched between the interests of Pakistan's army and Washington's "war on terrorism". That was further underlined yesterday when a US missile strike in South Waziristan killed at least six people in a house and a madrasa attached to a mosque. Pakistani authorities were not warned of the attack. It is thought that Mr Gilani had timed the ISI move for his meeting with George W Bush, after increasingly shrill voices from Washington and Kabul had complained that the intelligence agency was secretly supporting militants in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The functions of the ISI will be one of the main topics of discussion in Washington, where Mr Gilani is also expected to meet Dick Cheney, the vice president, Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of state, and Robert Gates, the defence secretary. He may also have talks with the presidential hopefuls, Barack Obama and John McCain.
The ISI is often described as a "state within a state", meddling in both domestic politics and foreign affairs. It has been blamed for bringing down Pakistani governments, including Benazir Bhutto's first administration in 1990, and running proxy wars in Kashmir and Afghanistan. Most recently, it was openly accused of masterminding this month's deadly bombing of the Indian Embassy in Kabul, and some have pointed accusing fingers at the ISI over the current spate of blasts in Indian cities.
Strategic Forecasting, a private US intelligence firm, said in a report: "Elements within the directorate [ISI] are running their own private foreign and domestic policy, and the ISI has a significant presence of Islamist militant sympathizers. A weak civilian government is unlikely to better manage the directorate than the much more powerful military." Nominally, the ISI is under the control of the prime minister. In reality, however, it is run by the military, pursuing the army's agenda. The current ISI chief, Lt Gen Nadeem Taj, is close to Mr Musharraf, not the civilian government of Mr Gilani. The army chief, Gen Ashfaq Kayani, is a former head of the ISI. Mr Gilani had sought to gain greater actual power over the ISI by placing it under the command of the interior ministry. The failure of the move was described by the opposition Pakistan Muslim League-Q as a "coup against the prime minister".
Asif Ali Zardari, the leader of Mr Gilani's Pakistan People's Party, had hailed the decision, saying: "No one will now be able to say that this agency is not under the elected government's control." After the U-turn, he admitted: "anyone can make mistakes in such situation, but nobody should doubt our intentions." Reassuring the United States that Pakistan is on board in the antiterrorism fight was to be Mr Gilani's message to Washington, so the ISI setback looks grave. But the decision to go to the United States was never going to be popular at home, where public opinion has called for Islamabad to distance itself from Washington, unlike the previous regime of Mr Musharraf. Traditionally, the first major overseas visit of a Pakistani prime minister has been to its most constant partner, China.
"Why are we always trying to allay US fears? Have we ever tried to put forward our fears?" said Shireen Mazari, a security analyst based in Islamabad. "One of the biggest blunders of our elite is to see America as a friend and ally." In Pakistan, the mainstream view is that the country is being used in the United States' war - a fight against Islam according to many - with the price being the turn of its own population against the state. That is not the view Mr Gilani will be extolling in the White House.
The visit can be expected to yield some tangible benefits for Pakistan. Already, Washington has controversially agreed to divert most military aid this year from antiterrorism expenditure to refitting some F-16 fighter jets - which would be of use in a war against India, but not against Islamic extremists at home. Agreement to non-stop flights for the national carrier, PIA, to New York also looks probable, and the Bush administration is likely to move closer to a multimillion-dollar civilian aid programme proposed by Joe Biden of Delaware, the head of the senate's foreign relations committee.
Ultimately, though, the visit cannot hide the cracks in the relationship. The Pakistan army believes that the government of Hamid Karzai in neighbouring Afghanistan is not in Pakistan's interests as it is closely allied with archenemy India. It seems Mr Gilani is powerless to reorient Pakistan's military and especially the ISI. The United States believes that winning the war in Afghanistan is vital for security at home, and it cannot compromise on the protection of US citizens to accommodate Pakistan's concerns.