Pakistan is adrift, and Washington is gripped with worry over the competence and prospects of Pakistan’s civilian government. The United States and Pakistan are caught in a dangerous spiral where Pakistani inactivity and incompetence lead to more heavy-handed U.S. policies, which stirs up more anti-Americanism among the Pakistani public.

  A new U.S. administration offers the possibility of a fresh start, but the Pakistani government will have to get its act together in a hurry if the two ostensible allies are to repair the trust deficit that leaves them working at cross purposes.

Unfortunately for Pakistan, Joe Biden’s recent visit to the region likely left the vice-president-elect with more doubts about the Zardari-Gilani government than it did assurances. Stopping in Pakistan and Afghanistan to assess the security situation in the region, encourage cooperation over the Mumbai terror investigations, and emphasize the importance of Pakistan to the new administration, Biden’s visit offered the Islamabad government an opportunity to impress. Unfortunately, just before Biden’s arrival, Prime Minister Gilani unexpectedly dismissed Pakistan’s national security advisor, Mahmoud Ali Durrani, a former ambassador to Washington who stood out for the respect he commanded in both America and India. Making matters worse, Gilani failed to inform cabinet members or even Zardari of his decision before taking action.

Ostensibly dismissed by the prime minister for prematurely acknowledging to the public the subcontinent’s worst kept secret — the Pakistani nationality of the lone surviving gunman of the Mumbai terror attacks — the firing of Durrani reveals a growing competition for power between Gilani and Zardari. The whole incident begs the question of who calls the shots in Pakistan. For Washington, this is a most unwelcome query at a time when significant portions of the country elude government control, an IMF bailout keeps Pakistan from defaulting on its debt, and an angry India demands cooperation and justice for the lives taken at Mumbai.

Put more bluntly, as Gilani fires, Peshawar burns – and Washington trembles.

Worse still, another Friends of Pakistan donor’s meeting will take place later this month and the badly-needed Biden-Lugar bill that provides enhanced civil aid to Pakistan still awaits the approval of a Congress furious about past Pakistani waste of U.S. taxpayer dollars. Key foreign governments friendly to Pakistan are withholding aid until they see more competence from the wobbly Pakistani government.

Next month Pakistan will celebrate the one-year anniversary of its historic elections that restored civilian democratic government to power. Since then, Pakistan’s political, economic, regional and security situation have only worsened. To be fair, the Musharraf regime left behind more than its fair share of messes, and regional and international events have dealt Pakistan few breaks. Still, Pakistan must put its house in order and demonstrate that unlike in the 1990s, this time civilian politicians can overcome their personal and parochial feuds for the sake of the larger national interest. For his part, Gilani did little to rise above the fray by sacking an internationally respected diplomat to score political points.

Moreover, the more Islamabad drifts, the more Washington cannot help itself from acting to promote its own interests – often with a heavy hand. Despite their growing battlefield success, aggressive CIA Predator missile attacks on al Qaeda operatives in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) undermine the credibility of the Pakistani government and security forces. Moreover, U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson’s insistence to Zardari and Gilani that the government restore Durrani as national security advisor has only reinforced the perception among hardliners and Islamists that Durrani worked to carry out the bidding of the U.S. and India.

In Pakistan  — where only cricket can compete with conspiracy theorizing as a national pastime — U.S. interference in its domestic affairs stirs up more anti-American rumors and opinions. David Sanger’s excellent piece from the Sunday New York Times Magazine on America’s gnawing fears about the security of Pakistan’s nuclear program reveals that the more concern and assistance Washington offers about Pakistani nuclear security, the more Islamabad becomes convinced the U.S. has a secret plan to seize and destroy its nuclear arsenal. Like a man stuck in quicksand, the more frantically the U.S. acts, the worse its situation becomes.

The Obama administration will have to learn to more subtly pressure Islamabad on matters of key interest to avoid giving the impression that Washington dictates Pakistan’s state of affairs, a key factor that drives anti-Americanism in Pakistan. Meanwhile, no doubt Biden made it clear in private that the U.S. does not intend to repeat its post-9/11 mistake of wasting billions more in U.S. aid to Pakistan. Just like in Iraq and Afghanistan, America cannot want Pakistan to succeed more than the Pakistani government does. With a new U.S. administration set to assume office in one week’s time, Zardari and Gilani must halt their petty squabbles with each other and with the opposition so that the U.S. and other friends of Pakistan can effectively and accountably deliver the aid Pakistan so badly needs.

Jeffrey Lightfoot is an assistant director of the Atlantic Council’s International Security Program.