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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari visits the United States next week as Washington seeks to put pressure on Islamabad to pursue militants without pushing an already strained relationship to breaking point.
Zardari will deliver a eulogy at a memorial service on January 14 for Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, the veteran U.S. diplomat who was President Barack Obama's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Holbrooke died last month.
The visit comes several weeks after Obama and other top officials publicly chided Pakistan for not acting quickly enough to eradicate Islamist militants within its borders who attack U.S.-led forces in neighbouring Afghanistan.
With 2010 having been the war's bloodiest year yet, pressure is mounting as Washington rushes to show progress in a long, unpopular conflict before Obama begins pulling out some of the almost 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan in July.
But experts warn against pushing Pakistan too hard as it grapples with its own political turmoil and internal threats.
"The marriage of the American and Pakistani objectives, this marriage of convenience, is rocky," said Imtiaz Gul, author of "Most Dangerous Place: Pakistan's Lawless Frontier."
"It's now a contest between the short-term American objective of creating conditions which would allow it to prepare for phased withdrawal and the long-term Pakistani interest of protecting its border region from exploding into anti-state sentiments."
Pakistani worries that the United States could leave behind an unstable Afghanistan allied with arch-foe India add another strain to a relationship that has been jolted by significant ups and downs over the past decade.
Pakistan is on edge this week after the assassination of a senior ruling party member and the breakdown of a leading political coalition that pushed Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani's government to the brink of collapse.
But concerns in Washington are focussed around Pakistan's willingness to go after the Afghan Taliban and other militants who launch attacks from along its rugged western border.
Pakistanis like to say Americans do not fully appreciate the difficulty their soldiers would face if they waded into a messy battle with militants in North Waziristan or the delicacy of support for the country's fragile civilian government.
"Pakistan is between a rock and a hard place. They need the Americans but ... they also need to avoid doing things that don't make sense according to their political imperatives," said Kamran Bokhari, director for Middle East and South Asia at intelligence firm STRATFOR.
For many Pakistanis, it is difficult to forget the turmoil that followed when the United States turned away from the region after the 1989 Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan.
"The United States has a pretty solid track record of using Pakistan as a blunt instrument and (then) skipping town," said one former White House official, requesting anonymity. "Why would the Pakistanis think this wouldn't happen this time?"
U.S. military and social assistance to Pakistan has soared as Washington's attention has turned from Iraq to Afghanistan over the past few years.
For fiscal year 2011, the Obama administration has requested more than $3 billion for programs that would equip Pakistani soldiers and fund education and health programs, as well as other sectors. That is a huge jump from 2008, when U.S. aid was just $741 million.
In return, Pakistan has taken steps to comply with U.S. wishes, shifting troops from its eastern border with India, its chief security preoccupation, to its border with Afghanistan.
Pakistan has permitted the United States to dramatically increase the tempo of pilotless drone strikes on militant hide-outs, risking a backlash from Pakistanis who see such attacks as a violation of their sovereignty.
But attempts to cooperate are not always easy.
A U.S. offer to provide unarmed surveillance drones to Islamabad has become a new source of friction, with Pakistan privately voicing concern about what it says are exorbitant prices and a slow delivery timeline.
Pakistani, U.S. and Afghan officials have been holding three-way talks designed in part to foster a political solution to Afghan violence. They next meet in Washington in February.
"In December 2008 who would have imagined Pakistan would have 150,000 troops in the west, engaged in six out of seven tribal agencies?" said a senior Obama administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"I hope our broader commitment to Pakistan over the last two years has helped produce better cooperation than before. It may not be fast enough for some people but it's certainly a major effort by Pakistan."
But the past year has also seen a number of notable points of friction, including a cross-border incursion by U.S.-led NATO forces that prompted Pakistan to temporarily close a key crossing and U.S. suspicions that Pakistani intelligence leaked the identity of the top U.S. spy in Pakistan.
U.S. intelligence sources say bilateral intelligence ties are extremely strained as Washington grapples with reports that elements of Pakistani intelligence are tacitly backing the militants.
"We've seen in the past when we have crossed certain red lines, they have retaliated," said Ashley Tellis, an expert on security at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
"This is really a mutual hostage relationship and there are limits which neither side can go beyond."
Additional reporting by Kamran Haider in Islamabad; Editing by John O'Callaghan