In 2001, on the eve of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, President George W. Bush gave Pakistan's then-leader, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, a choice: He was either with us or against us. Musharraf chose to become an ally, but the question ever since has been whether that shotgun marriage can mature into a healthy adult relationship.
At times, the prospect has seemed far from reach.
The world's second-most-populous Muslim country is caught in a brutal internal struggle between extremism and moderation. Most of its people tell pollsters they don't like the United States and wish we'd go away. The tribesmen of its western frontier shelter Osama bin Laden and the leaders of Afghanistan's Taliban. And the United States can't forget how, in the 1980s, Pakistan built nuclear weapons -- and then later exported nuclear technology to North Korea and Iran.
But in recent months, there has been progress in the relationship.
Military and intelligence cooperation between the United States and Pakistan has increased significantly. Pakistan has allowed the CIA to increase its missile strikes against Al Qaeda and Taliban targets in Pakistani territory. Pakistani authorities have arrested several Taliban leaders and allowed U.S. intelligence officers to question them. And now Pakistan is offering to increase its own military operations in North Waziristan, the presumed lair of Bin Laden.
All that cooperation came at a price, of course: a flood of U.S. military and economic aid. And last week, the Pakistanis came to Washington to press for more.
The academic criticism of the U.S.-Pakistani relationship is that it is "transactional" -- nothing more than a series of bargains between buyers and sellers who don't trust each other much. That's still mostly true.
Pakistan's delegation arrived with a 56-page shopping list covering everything from military equipment to education and cultural exchanges. And one Pakistani official, asked during the visit whether his government was truly willing to act against the havens that allow the Taliban to maintain bases in Pakistan, replied frankly: "Yes -- but at a price."
After a series of meetings with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Pakistan's ebullient foreign minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, declared: "I think we are going to move from a relationship to a partnership." But he used the future tense.
In the meantime, there are things to work out. Pakistan is clearly worried about what happens when the United States begins pulling troops out of Afghanistan in 2011. Although Obama administration officials have tried to reassure Pakistan that Washington's commitment to the region is for the long haul, uncertainty remains.
"Our fear is . . . that we get into a fight with these guys [the Taliban], and you walk away, and we're still there," a Pakistani official said.
Pakistan's powerful army chief of staff, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, spent part of his time in Washington visiting Congress with PowerPoint slides to show that Pakistan has committed more troops to its fight against insurgents than the United States has on the ground in Afghanistan, and that it has suffered almost 30,000 killed and wounded in the process.
According to U.S. officials, Kayani made a strong case that Pakistan can do more if it gets more modern military equipment from the United States, especially helicopters to ferry troops into the rugged badlands where Al Qaeda and the Taliban hide.
The United States has helped Pakistan acquire some helicopters, but not as many and not as quickly as the Pakistanis would like. U.S. officials said they would try to speed the delivery of more. In the past, U.S. officials complained that Pakistan used much of its U.S. military aid to bolster its eastern front with India instead of its fight with internal insurgents; but since Pakistan's 2009 offensive in the Swat Valley, that criticism has been stilled.
The delegation also added a new item to Islamabad's wish list: a nuclear agreement under which the United States would help Pakistan develop its civilian nuclear energy industry -- to mirror a similar U.S. agreement with India, Pakistan's longtime enemy.
The United States told the Pakistanis that would have to wait. The memory of having to clamp sanctions on Pakistan for its nuclear weapons program is still too fresh. But it was a sign of improving relations that the idea wasn't rejected completely.
In 2001, the United States sought a new relationship with Pakistan mostly because it was next to Afghanistan -- and thus a country we would need for moving military supplies and basing drones.
But that thinking has slowly evolved. In the long run, with its population of 170 million people -- not to mention its cache of nuclear weapons -- Pakistan is more important than Afghanistan.
"We're engaging with Pakistan because we're afraid of it," says Christine Fair, a Pakistan expert at Georgetown University. "It's the scariest country in the region. Because of Afghanistan, it's been treated as if it were a subsidiary issue. But Pakistan should be the primary issue."
The Americans are working hard to convince the Pakistanis that they are interested in Pakistan's stability for its own sake, not just because it's next door to Afghanistan. The Pakistanis are working hard to convince the Americans that they are committed to defeating the extremists in their midst.
It's not a strategic relationship yet. If it's a partnership, it's still a wary one. But that's progress.