ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - Since Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistani generals have been consumed with rage.
U.S. officials don't believe the top Pakistani brass knew bin Laden was there. But the fact that the Americans carried off the raid without Pakistan's knowledge has humiliated the military and angered its public, to the point where essential military cooperation is in jeopardy. (Sadly, that anger is more centered on the violation of Pakistan's sovereignty than on the fact that bin Laden hung out undetected for five years only an hour from the Pakistani capital.)
So Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made a sudden, unannounced trip here to try to salvage a relationship with a country whose cooperation is vital for a decent end to the war in Afghanistan.
Yet, as a tense Clinton made clear at a Friday news conference, unless the two sides can be more candid in private and in public, this crucial relationship will fail.
For the last couple of years, Mullen has repeatedly traveled to Islamabad to build closer ties with his counterpart, Pakistani military chief Ashfaq Parvez Kayani. Clinton tried to do the same by pushing for more nonmilitary aid to Pakistan.
Despite a degree of military and intelligence cooperation, however, neither side ever fully trusted the other; deep resentments festered. Pakistan blamed America for botching the Afghan war, which pushed Taliban groups into its tribal areas and helped fuel militancy there. The United States blamed Pakistan for providing sanctuary for Afghan Taliban commanders and letting the militants cross back to kill Afghans and U.S. troops.
Neither side wanted to confront the other openly. The Americans didn't want to anger the Pakistanis, whose territory provides the main supply route for our troops in Afghanistan. The Pakistanis didn't want to bite (at least, too deeply) the hand that funds their army.
So the two sides never came clean with each other. The Americans fumed that Pakistan secretly protected Afghan Taliban leaders, while the Pakistanis complained that America failed to appreciate the cost of their war on Pakistani Taliban groups.
Meantime, Pakistani officials privately cooperated with the U.S. drone strikes against militants, even as they publicly denounced the strikes. Pakistani officials often portrayed the struggle against terrorists as America's war, not their own.
Clinton, speaking firmly, made clear that the era of evasiveness had to end.
One way to start clearing the air, she suggested, would be to confront bizarre conspiracy theories that proliferate in Pakistani media and promote virulent anti-Americanism.
U.S. officials say they believe such stories are often planted by the Pakistani military.
"Pakistan should understand," she said, "that anti-Americanism and conspiracy theories will not make its problems disappear."
What she referred to has been on full display since bin Laden's death. A raft of stories making the rounds allege that the al-Qaeda leader was killed elsewhere and his body brought by the CIA to Abbottabad to embarrass the Pakistani military.
"We are in a state of denial," says former Pakistani national security adviser Mahmoud Durrani. "This has become a habit: Blame everything on someone else, whether the Americans, or the Indians, or Afghans."
So perhaps it's not surprising that 66 percent of urban Pakistanis don't even believe bin Laden was killed, according to a recent poll. Or that Pakistani media speculated that last week's bloody terrorist attack on a Karachi naval base was masterminded by America, India, and Israel even though a Pakistani Taliban group claimed credit.
"I find very sensible people talking about conspiracies," says retired general Talat Masood, a military analyst. "As a country today, there is a huge siege mentality. America, Israel, and India are after us, the stories go, and they want to weaken our institutions. But if you brand America as the villain, how can you have a good relationship?" How, indeed?
Clinton also suggested that more be done to let Pakistanis - and Americans - get a fairer picture of the other's efforts.
Few Americans realize, she said, that Pakistan has committed one-third of its army to fight Pakistani Taliban in the tribal areas along the Afghan border, suffering more than 3,000 military and 30,000 civilian casualties in the process. Nor do most Americans know that Pakistan has cooperated in hunting down al-Qaeda operatives over the past decade. The Western media focuses more on the fact that Pakistan has not seriously pursued Afghan Taliban who take shelter on its soil.
Nor do Pakistanis appreciate, she said, the extent of U.S. aid to their country. A $7.5 billion U.S. civilian aid package spread over 10 years was denounced in the Pakistani press (with apparent military encouragement) because conditions were put on some of the money.
"We need to . . . tell the truth . . . about the level of aid the U.S. is providing," Clinton insisted. "We provide more support than Saudi Arabia and China and everyone else combined. But I'm not sure many Pakistanis know that. We provided the most aid for the floods (that ravaged Pakistan last year), but I bet not many Pakistanis know that." Indeed they don't.
If candor became the watchword of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship, Pakistan's leaders would shoot down nonsensical conspiracy theories.
Pakistanis could demand honest answers about U.S. strategy and staying power in Afghanistan. U.S. officials could in turn demand to know whether rogue Pakistani military elements are backing terrorists who hit India and threaten the West. And both sides could expect serious answers.
Each side also could set out its red lines for an Afghan solution, and then decide what degree of cooperation was feasible.
"The point of friendship," Clinton said, "is telling each other difficult truths where we see them."
But if this relationship remains trapped in a web of wild theories, evasions, and rumors, there is no way it can work.