George Bush and Pakistan’s president, Asif Ali Zardari, have more in common than one might think. As younger men, both had reputations as playboy hell-raisers. As the current, more sober leaders of their respective countries, both are deeply unpopular with large numbers of fellow citizens. For his part, Bush is on his way out. And if the Islamists who bombed the Islamabad Marriott at the weekend have their way, Zardari, husband of the murdered Benazir Bhutto, will surely follow him — one way or another.

The stakes for this odd couple are high. Zardari is engaged in a fraught political and military campaign not only to retain power but, more importantly, hold the country together in the teeth of an existential threat to democratic, secular governance. The war in Afghanistan has taken root inside Pakistan and is spreading beyond the tribal areas and North-West Frontier province. Afghan Taliban and foreign jihadis from Kunan, in eastern Afghanistan, and beyond, temporarily abandoning the fight with Nato, are reportedly flocking to Bajaur, Kohat and Swat to join battle with the Pakistani army.

Military analysts warn that the challenge to Pakistan’s integrity is growing more formidable. Suicide bombings, almost unknown five years ago, have claimed more than 300 lives this year. Recent days have seen heavy fighting, with the army claiming to have killed 60 insurgents. The economy is in deep, destabilising trouble. The UN, meanwhile, has launched an emergency appeal for $17m to assist more than 250,000 internally displaced people in the western border areas.

The Bush administration’s analysis, offered after the Marriott bombing, was no less dramatic: “Their [the insurgents’] goal is to create mayhem and weaken the institutions of government so they may operate unfettered while spreading their intolerance. The US will continue to stand with the Pakistani people and their democratically elected

government as it confronts this scourge.”

Since Zardari gave his army chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, a green light in July to conduct unrestricted operations against the Islamists, the conviction has grown among Pakistani officials that only outright victory will suffice. But they have another motive. July was also the month when Bush secretly authorised US special forces operations inside Pakistan.

Decisively beating back the militants is thus seen as perhaps the only way of curbing direct US military interference, so thoroughly offensive to most Pakistanis. This consideration forms the uncomfortable context for a recently floated plan for joint Pakistani-Afghan border patrols.

Robert Gates, the US defence secretary, was blunt. “The war on terror started in this region. It must end there,” he told Congress on Sept 23. Yet Bush is also looking longer term, apparently determined in the self-justificatory, squalid final months of a dying presidency to set Afghanistan and Pakistan on the “right track”. This effort includes a “comprehensive strategic military review”, with one proposal increasing US combat troop levels in Afghanistan and involving enhanced troop contributions from Nato. If this sounds risky, that’s not surprising. If agreed, it would be. As in other policy areas, Bush’s quest for a lasting legacy leaves others, such as the hapless Zardari, to pick up the tab. — The Guardian