When Charles Arthur Williams, a 41-year-old from Mississippi, showed up for a flight in Peshawar, Pakistan, with 9mm bullets in his bag, he could have quickly become a poster child for Americans who behave badly in Pakistan. Pakistani television channels compared him to Raymond Davis, a CIA contractor who killed two Pakistanis in Lahore and sparked widespread anger and anti-American protests.
But after a brief detention, Williams was released, and the brief fury of press coverage quickly dissipated. Pakistani and American officials worked together behind the scenes, diffusing what could have easily become another talking point for Pakistanis looking to criticize U.S. actions in Pakistan. He quickly left the country the same day.
"Thanks to good Pakistani partners for a sane resolution," tweeted Richard Hoagland, the deputy U.S. ambassador in Islamabad.
"We didn't want Ray Davis again, did we?" joked a police officer in Peshawar.
Compare that low-key resolution to the avalanche of public fury when Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Cal.) introduced a non-binding, unlikely-to-pass resolution suggesting the secession of Pakistan's largest province. Pakistan's prime minister derided the bill as a challenge to Pakistan's sovereignty and Pakistan's foreign minister called it an "an unfriendly and irresponsible attempt … aimed at creating distrust between the people of the two countries."
Rohrabacher's resolution touched the third rail in Pakistani politics - and was of course much more public than Williams' brief detention - but nonetheless, the two stories help reveal the state of Pakistan-U.S. relations: working behind the scenes, broken in public.
In a dozen interviews with Pakistani and American officials, most agree on two things: At a working level, two allies that have struggled through a string of high-profile setbacks are conducting business relatively normally (75 percent normally, says a senior U.S. official, including on intelligence sharing). But at a public level, Pakistan's government and military cannot admit to helping the U.S. in a war that is still widely referred to in Pakistan as "America's war on terror."
Here's the reason this is important: Until the Pakistani government and military believe they can help the U.S. publicly without risking the wrath of their own people, they will never be able to give the level of cooperation that the United States is looking for as it begins to withdraw from neighboring Afghanistan. (The U.S. currently has a lower popularity rating in Pakistan than BP did in the U.S. during the massive oil spill that dumped thousands of barrels of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico.)
Today, for the first time since American jets killed 24 Pakistani troops in November, the two countries resumed high-level dialogue when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar in London.
Behind the scenes, Pakistan has been helpful in bringing senior Afghan insurgents living inside Pakistan to the negotiating table, U.S. and Afghan officials say. And going into the meeting, Khar expected that Pakistan's "enabling and facilitating role in Afghanistan" would be acknowledged, according to a senior Pakistani official.
But the official also said Khar would bring up Rohrabacher"s resolution, showing just how upset Pakistan remains and just how important the government believes it is to object publicly to U.S. actions. "We will be discussing the recent statements and attacks on Pakistan vis-à-vis Baluchistan and inform Secretary Clinton in no uncertain terms that this is extremely unhelpful," the Pakistani official said before the meeting.
A senior Pakistani military official recently described to me how difficult it is to be seen helping the United States in public. He held the top half of a newspaper with two hands, comparing its surface area to the number of Pakistanis who support a close U.S.-Pakistan alliance.
First, he said, the Raymond Davis shooting cut that support in half.
He folded the newspaper; only a quarter of the front page was visible.
He said the Osama bin Laden raid cut the support in half again.
He folded the newspaper again; only a sliver was visible.
Then, he said, American jets killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.
He threw the paper up in the air and showed off empty hands. "There is no more support," he said.
For the government - which is already seen by many Pakistanis as too close to the U.S. - the removal of that support has led to a delay in the official restart of the bilateral relationship. Weeks ago, Pakistan's Parliamentary Committee on National Security forwarded 35 recommendations on how to rewrite the U.S.-Pakistan cooperation agreement signed by President Bush and President Pervez Musharraf that recently expired.
Among the recommendations, which committee members said were endorsed by the Pakistani military and the foreign ministry: Charge the U.S. more money to transport equipment through Pakistan to Afghanistan; urge the U.S. to admit how many CIA officers are in Pakistan and what they're doing; demand that the U.S. better communicate with the Pakistani military during operations near the border.
This year is expected to be an election year in Pakistan, and two committee members said the U.S. was so unpopular, they did not expect the government to follow through on a promise to call a joint sitting of parliament to endorse the recommendations.
"It will be more fashionable to talk against the Americans before the next election than any other thing," said one committee member who requested anonymity.
The pressure on politicians to speak out against the United States - and on the government not to support the U.S. publicly - has grown since a collection of radical and religious parties came together under the banner "Defence Council of Pakistan."
In many other countries, their members might be in jail: They include the head of an organization that openly admits to targeting Pakistani Shias and the head of the group that the U.S. says is behind the 2008 Mumbai attacks.
But this week, as the government again delayed the joint sitting of parliament, the council held a rally in the capital, promising to storm the parliament if the government reinstates the NATO supply line that runs through Pakistan. About 1,000 supporters joined the rally, chanting the names of some leaders as they arrived on stage as if they were heroes or rock stars.
"Do they want to clash with the people of Pakistan? That would be a huge mistake," warned Hamid Gul, an outspoken former chief of the Inter-Services Intelligence spy agency who is one of the council's leading members.
He said in an interview on the sidelines of the rally that the council's objection to the NATO supply line was felt widely across the country. And then he warned the government, speaking only partially rhetorically, not to resume its relationship with the U.S.
"Numbers, sheer numbers. We will not only clash with the government. We will be bringing our Kalashnikovs," he said. "We will liberate Islamabad."
In order to give the Pakistani government some political breathing room with its own people, U.S. officials say will continue to be patient for the parliament to act - at least for another two months or so. They also say the U.S. is considering publicly apologizing to Pakistan for the death of its troops in November.
Said the National Security committee member: "The apology is very important… It will create room for the American viewpoint. The families of the martyrs expect that. And so does Pakistan."