By Ray Fleming

COULD an increase in the cost of petrol and heating oil in Pakistan affect the outcome of the West's ten year campaign against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan? The question may seem far-fetched but the withdrawal of the MQM party, the second largest in the Pakistan coalition government, because of fuel price rises has put the future of prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani's government in doubt; Mr GIlani has now lost his parliamentary majority.

Although this crisis may be solved in the short term it is a warning to the West that Pakistan's government, its principal ally in the Afghanistan campaign, is far from stable and for that reason unable to give US and NATO forces the military help they need in the border areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Pakistan's economic difficulties extend far beyond adjustments in the price of petrol. The disastrous floods of last year may have receded but they left huge losses in agricultural production and major problems of resettlement of people whose homes were destroyed. The government has had to secure a 7.3 billion loan from the IMF and there is already talk of a further loan being necessary. The United States has also provided huge sums for military and civilian aid without seeing any concrete and consistent response to its political and military expectations. A weakened government in Pakistan is the last thing the West wants to see.

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