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Despite Public Animosity, US and Pakistan Cooperate Behind the Scenes

iStockphoto/Thinkstock(LONDON) -- 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 Rorchbacher, R-Calif., 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.”

Rorchbacher’s resolution touched the third rail in Pakistani politics -- and was much more public than Williams’s brief detention. 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.”

But why is this 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.)

Thursday, 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 Rohrbacher’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.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

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