The U.S.-Pakistan relationship is critical to American security interests and the fight against terrorism. It's also been marked by a jarring note of suspicion and distrust on both sides about the ultimate intentions of the other. U.S. officials, in particular, have expressed increasing frustration with the Pakistani army's apparent unwillingness to go after Taliban insurgents based along the country's border with Afghanistan.

That's why the American response to the worst natural disaster to strike Pakistan in that nation's history is of such critical importance.

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Pakistan is a nuclear nation in one of the world's most volatile neighborhoods. It borders Afghanistan, where U.S. troops have been engaged in combat for almost nine years in a mission that many Americans are finding increasingly difficult to justify. Pakistan is, of course, thought to be where Osama bin Laden is hiding, where the Taliban are gaining strength and where elements of the security forces are in league with extremists. And it is a nation that has received about $9 billion in American aid over the past decade.

In the wake of massive flooding that has swept Pakistan in recent weeks, United Nations officials have called for $460 million in emergency aid from the international community, and so far the U.S. has been the largest donor. But will the U.S. humanitarian reponse improve our image among the large segment of the population there that is increasingly hostile to a U.S. presence in the region?

American policymakers are betting that it will, even though past experience suggests that any shift in attitudes may be short-lived. On the other hand, the U.S. can hardly stand by and do nothing. That would risk validating the claims of opponents who have charged all along that the U.S. is only interested in using Pakistan as a foil in its war on terror.

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