The unhappy marriage of convenience between the United States and Pakistan survived another squabble last week.
Pakistan threatened to halt CIA drone strikes against militants in its tribal areas, one of the only effective U.S. tools for hitting al-Qaeda and Taliban operatives based there. Pakistani officials then leaked their demand that Washington sharply reduce the number of CIA and special-forces operatives working in the country.
All this followed the arrest of a CIA contractor named Raymond Davis, who had killed two Pakistanis allegedly trying to rob him. Pakistan's spy chief hastened to Washington last week to voice his anger to CIA Director Leon Panetta.
So is this strategic relationship heading toward a very nasty divorce?
Not yet. Some of the Pakistani threats were theatrics. Drone attacks will continue, though perhaps at reduced levels. Cuts in CIA personnel will be far less drastic than rumored in the media. Moreover, Davis was released thanks to some smart diplomacy by Pakistani and U.S. officials.
But the frayed alliance undercuts U.S. plans to draw down troops in Afghanistan and leave behind a stable country. Washington needs better cooperation from Pakistan in shutting down Taliban havens on its soil, which fuel the conflict. Without that cooperation, a U.S. troop withdrawal could plunge Afghanistan into renewed civil war.
So is there a way besides constant quarrels and shaky reunions to handle U.S.-Pakistani relations?
The fundamental problem, says the distinguished South Asia expert and diplomat Teresita Schaffer, is that "our strategic objectives [in Afghanistan] have some overlap but don't coincide."
Schaffer has written a fascinating book with her husband, Howard, also a South Asia hand, that lays out better ways of dealing with the prickly Pakistanis. Its very title is revealing: How Pakistan Negotiates With the United States: Riding the Roller Coaster. The couple examine ways of coping with cultural differences, divergent power structures, and deep mutual mistrust. They even give wise advice on how to cope with repeated Pakistani statements "that the U.S. side considers either irrational or blatantly untrue."
But the Davis case sums up the difficulties of managing the U.S.-Pakistani relationship. Davis was a security contractor protecting CIA agents who were apparently spying on the militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT). That's the organization that carried out the bloody attack on the Indian city of Mumbai in 2008.
Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) nurtured the growth of LeT because the militant group fought against India in Kashmir. Despite the Mumbai outrage, and despite the fact that LeT now plans attacks on the West, the Pakistani military refuses to dismantle the group because of obsession with the "Indian threat."
"The army and ISI were furious that the United States was running operations to survey militant organizations with whom they had a continuing relationship," Schaffer said. Of course, if the Pakistani army would shut down LeT, the CIA would not need to be tailing these militants.
Similarly, if Pakistan's military were making more headway in clearing al-Qaeda and Taliban militants from its side of the Afghan border, the CIA drone strikes would not be needed. But last week, the Obama administration sent a report to Congress that was deeply critical of the slow pace of Pakistan's efforts. And the Pakistani army has been unable to hold areas it has cleared.
Needless to say, the Pakistani military and ISI see the situation very differently. In conversations I've had with serving and retired army and ISI officers, they attribute their militant problem to U.S. errors in Afghanistan. They are unwilling to shut down havens for the Afghan Taliban (whom they trained in the 1990s) because they want a friendly, and anti-Indian, regime to take over in Kabul after the U.S. exit. They believe the Taliban may provide their best option.
The ISI is also prone to leaking stories that stoke anti-Americanism in the Pakistani public, so it can tell U.S. officials that its hands are tied because of public outrage.
So how does one deal with this kind of partner? Pakistan's concerns about the future of neighboring Afghanistan are perfectly legitimate. But the paranoia that accompanies those concerns makes it nearly impossible to address them.
Pakistani army officers believe India wants to use Afghanistan as a base from which to dismember Pakistan. They are also convinced - and here's where their fear of CIA spies goes ballistic - that the United States wants to seize Pakistan's nuclear weapons.
Thus, the Davis case becomes a symbol of a much bigger problem. In theory, both sides have a strong common interest in promoting a stable Afghanistan. But Pakistanis don't trust us, and we don't trust them.
Pakistan wants to be in the driver's seat in negotiating an Afghan solution, one that totally excludes India and focuses too much on the Taliban. Won't work. Washington must recognize Pakistan's legitimate role, but it can't turn over control of the whole process.
It's time to lessen U.S. dependence on Pakistan: Huzzahs for the overdue move to ship more U.S. supplies into Afghanistan via a northern route rather than through Karachi.
We should listen to Pakistani officials' concerns and keep stressing our common objectives. But we can't let their paranoia prevent us from doing what's necessary if they won't - and that includes drone strikes. Cope with our roller-coaster relationship, yes, but don't let it drive us off the rails.
Trudy Rubin can be reached