SWAT, Pakistan – The flood waters have mostly receded from the Swat Valley, leaving a vast swath of silt littered with the remains of houses, roads, and bridges.
Above it, there's the incongruous sight of lumbering U.S. Army Chinook helicopters, like twin-rotored flying trucks, ferrying refugees in one direction, and cement, rice and other relief supplies in the other.
Aboard this flight is U.S. Army Brigadier Michael Nagata, second in command of the U.S. military mission to Pakistan.
"I tell my people, we are ruthlessly focused on being here for the people of Pakistan," said Nagata. He rejects any notion that U.S. aid relief was about boosting U.S. approval rating in Pakistan, which is somewhere in the 17 percent range.
The Chinooks — together with a fleet of smaller Black Hawks — could well be a visual symbol for the almost schizophrenic military and diplomatic relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan.
Here, U.S. pilots work closely and quietly with the Pakistani army on flood relief, in what is almost a model for cooperating with a host country instead of putting U.S. boots on the ground, at great cost in money and lives. Yet in recent weeks, U.S. pilots in armed helicopters have also strayed or fired into Pakistan's tribal territories, killing two Pakistani border guards while pursuing militants from Afghanistan. Pakistan shut its Torkham border crossing to U.S. truck shipments to Afghanistan for almost two weeks in retaliation, before opening it again.
Throughout that tense period, the flood relief mission continued. Nagata flies every other day, a quiet presence listening on a headset to the U.S. pilots talking with their Pakistani co-pilot, and surveying the choreography of loading and unloading at each stop. He manages the U.S. part of the operation from Pakistan's top-secret Ghazi Air Base, roughly 90 minutes' drive north of Islamabad.
That daily cooperation helped keep lines of communication open during the border controversy. Despite some harsh rhetoric aimed at the U.S. in public, Pakistani officials say they did not consider suspending military or intelligence cooperation.
The root causes of the conflict remain, however — the tension between what the U.S. wants Pakistan to do, and Pakistan's reluctance to do it, because of either national pride or national goals that diverge from U.S. desires for the region.
The White House has pressed Pakistan to put more resources into fighting Pakistan-based militant groups that are attacking U.S. and Afghan troops next door — including the violent Haqqani tribe, which straddles the Afghan-Pakistan border, the bulk located in Pakistan's lawless, mountainous area of North Waziristan.
Pakistani officials say they do have almost 30,000 troops in North Waziristan, but they insist a full campaign must wait until some 70,000 troops now devoted to flood relief can join the fight. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss strategy matters.
But U.S. officials are known to consider Pakistan's efforts lacking. That criticism echoed a recent White House report to Congress, which gave Pakistan mediocre marks for its militant crackdown.
A U.S. official in Washington, who spoke anonymously to discuss sensitive negotiations, said Pakistan's refusal to attack the Haqqanis is "proof the Pakistanis are playing the long game in Afghanistan" by planning to use the Haqqani tribe as a hedge against the weak Afghan government.
It's tensions like that Nagata and his boss, Vice Admiral Michael LeFever, have spent nearly two years trying to diffuse, at least on the ground. Bonds with individual Pakistani officers are all the more important in a country where power has changed four times by coup, in its short 63-year history.
The American officers in Pakistan are not only fighting current history, but the legacy of a roughly 12-year hiatus in Pakistani-U.S. military relations, due to the U.S. Congress's Pressler amendment. The act banned most U.S. military and economic aid to Pakistan as punishment over its nuclear weapons program. Senior U.S. officers speak of a "lost generation" of Pakistani officers they are trying to get to know — officers who would have come to the United States through educational exchange programs, or would have gotten to know American officers visiting Pakistan to train local forces.
"I myself was a casualty of the Pressler amendment," says Gen. Athar Abbas, the director general of the Pakistani military's Inter Services Public Relations. He was supposed to go to Ft. Leavenworth, in Kansas, but went to a Malaysian military academy instead.
Before the recent controversy over air strikes, LeFever said the overall relationship had been on an upswing. The U.S. was trying to get out of a "transactional relationship" where it would only offer something when it wanted something, LeFever said.
Part of the U.S. outreach includes spending up to $5 million this year to bring Pakistani military officers to the states, or bringing U.S. military trainers here, to share skills and forge relationships.
LeFever said between 60 to 120 U.S. special operations trainers — from U.S. Army Green Berets to Navy SEALs to Marine Special Operations units — work with groups such as Pakistan's border Frontier Corps and its elite Special Service Group on everything from how to use night vision goggles to sniper training.
The U.S. military shares intelligence with Pakistani security forces, from U.S. drone feeds to satellite surveillance, via intelligence "fusion" centers in Peshawar, Quetta and the tribal town of Landi Kotal.
The U.S. is also helping the Pakistanis build their own high-tech forensic lab to analyze the improvised explosive devices that are increasingly used against Pakistani troops, as they are against Afghans and Americans across the border.
Pakistani military and intelligence officials praise U.S. help on the ground, but say much of the goodwill is negated by the steady drumbeat of comments from U.S. officials in Washington, threatening unilateral action if Pakistan does not pick up the anti-militant pace.
The Pakistani officials spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the sensitive relationship. As one Pakistani officer put it — we'll do a lot for you, if you don't make us look bad, and you don't constantly remind us that you have the upper hand.
American sensitivity to that prickliness was clear on the Swat flight. With the day stretching into a seventh hour, the Pakistani co-pilot, riding in a jump seat in the back, asked the Americans whether they wanted to make another run up the valley.
Several U.S. officers on the flight outranked the Pakistani. But the Americans replied, "Our boss says you're the boss. You make the call."
They all laughed at the gesture. Nagata smiled.
Then the Pakistani co-pilot made the call, and the Chinook headed up the valley again.