I've spent a fair amount of time slapping the Saudis around for being ersatz friends, and it occurs to me that it would probably be proper to note who has been a good friend as well.

Despite all of the trouble some believe Pakistan has caused us in the past — it being the birthplace of the Taliban, and all — it is being tough with its critics right now, and standing with the U.S.

For that, Pakistan deserves some credit. How would you like to be President Musharraf right now? You've got a fairly loud and angry internal opposition screaming bloody murder because you're helping the infidels — the U.S.

You've got your neighbor — the country formerly known as Afghanistan — falling apart before your very eyes. You've got to be asking yourself: How many -stans will I have to deal with if the place breaks up into tribal fiefdoms? You'd have Pashtunistan, Tajikistan II, Turkmenistan II. The list goes on and on …

And then there's India screeching at you that your internal security people have been setting off bombs in Hindustan.

All the while, your new best friend — the United States — is bombing the heck out of the former Afghanistan, sending more refugees your way, and threatening to send troops into your country to look for the fugitives they would most like to catch: Usama bin Laden and Mullah Mohammed Omar.

And you, the president of Pakistan, can't even say for sure if the fugitives are in your country or not. They could be. Who knows? It's a wild and wooly frontier.

All of this adds up to a big headache for Musharraf. So what is he to do? Does he cut and run, telling the U.S. to stick it and keep its billion dollars?

Musharraf knows that some of his own people think bin Laden is not the scourge of the earth, yet he helps the U.S. In that part of the world, we need some help.

Does anybody really think the tribal warlords in the new -stans of the former Afghanistan are going to be more cooperative than Musharraf? It's not that safe of a bet.

We have to pick from a pretty scruffy lot if we want friends in the dusty war-torn Afghanistan. At least in Pakistan, we have a friend and a leader who has been helpful. You'll also notice that there wasn't one single Pakistani among the Sept. 11 hijackers.

We have to be nice to the Saudis because of oil. We're nice to the Pakistanis because they're actually being nice back. We should count our blessings.

That's My Word.

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