As an American visitor in the power precincts of Pakistan, from the gated enclaves of Islamabad to the manicured lawns of the military garrison in Peshawar, from the luxury fortress of the Serena Hotel to the exclusive apartments of the parliamentary housing blocks, you can expect three time-honoured traditions: black tea with milk, obsequious servants and a profound sense of grievance. Talk to Pakistani politicians, scholars, generals, businessmen, spies and journalists as I did in October and before long, you are beyond the realm of politics and diplomacy and into the realm of hurt feelings. Words like ditch and jilt and betray recur. With Americans, they complain, its never a commitment, its always a transaction. This theme is played to the hilt, for effect, but it is also heartfelt. The thing about us, a Pakistani official told me, is that we are half emotional and half irrational. For a relationship that has oscillated for decades between collaboration and breakdown, this has been an extraordinarily bad year, at an especially inconvenient time. As America settles onto the long path toward withdrawal from Afghanistan, Pakistan has considerable power to determine whether the end of our longest war is seen as a plausible success or a calamitous failure. There are, of course, other reasons that Pakistan deserves our attention. It has a fast-growing population approaching 190 million, and it hosts a loose conglomerate of terrorist franchises that offer young Pakistanis employment and purpose unavailable in the suffering feudal economy. It has 100-plus nuclear weapons (Americans who monitor the program dont know the exact number or the exact location) and a tense, heavily armed border with nuclear India. And its president, Asif Ali Zardari, oversees a ruinous kleptocracy that is spiraling deeper into economic crisis. But it is the scramble to disengage from Afghanistan that has focused minds in Washington. Pakistans rough western frontier with Afghanistan is a sanctuary for militant extremists and criminal ventures, including the Afghan Taliban, the Pakistani Taliban, the notorious Haqqani clan and important remnants of the original horror story, Al Qaeda. The mistrust between Islamabad and Kabul is deep, nasty Afghanistan was the only country to vote against letting Pakistan into the United Nations and tribal. And to complicate matters further, Pakistan is the main military supply route for the American-led international forces and the Afghan National Army. On Thanksgiving weekend, a month after I returned from Pakistan, the relationship veered precipitously typically off course again. Nato aircraft covering an operation by Afghan soldiers and American Special Forces pounded two border posts, inadvertently killing 24 Pakistani soldiers, including two officers. The Americans said that they were fired on first and that Pakistan approved the airstrikes; the Pakistanis say the Americans did not wait for clearance to fire and then bombed the wrong targets. The fallout was painfully familiar: outrage, suspicion and recrimination, petulance and political posturing. Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the chief of the army and by all accounts the most powerful man in Pakistan, retaliated by shutting (for now and not for the first time) the Nato supply corridor through his country. The Pakistanis abruptly dropped out of a Bonn conference on the future of Afghanistan and announced they would not cooperate with an American investigation of the airstrikes. President Obama sent condolences but balked at the suggestion of an apology; possibly the president did not want to set off another chorus of Mitt Romneys refrain that Obama is always apologising for America. At this writing, American officials were trying to gauge whether the errant airstrike would have, as one worried official put it, a long half-life. If you survey informed Americans, you will hear Pakistanis described as duplicitous, paranoid, self-pitying and generally infuriating. In turn, Pakistanis describe us as fickle, arrogant, shortsighted and chronically unreliable. Neither countrys caricature of the other is entirely wrong, and it makes for a relationship that is less in need of diplomacy than couples therapy, which customarily starts by trying to see things from the other point of view. While the Pakistanis have hardly been innocent, they have a point when they say America has not been the easiest of partners. One good place to mark the beginning of this very, very bad year in US-Pakistani relations is December 13, 2010, when Richard C. Holbrooke died of a torn aorta. Holbrooke, the veteran of the Balkan peace, had for two years held the thankless, newly invented role of the administrations special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. The antithesis of mellow, Holbrooke did not hit it off with our no-drama president, and his bluster didnt always play well in Kabul or Islamabad either. But Holbrooke paid aggressive attention to Pakistan. While he was characteristically blunt about the divergent US and Pakistani views, he understood that they were a result of different, calculated national interests, not malevolence or mere orderliness. He was convinced that the outlooks could be, if not exactly synchronised, made more compatible. He made a concentrated effort to persuade the Pakistanis that this time the United States would not be a fair-weather friend. You need a Holbrooke, says Maleeha Lodhi, a well-connected former ambassador to Washington. Not necessarily the person but the role. In the absence of full-on engagement, she says, its become a very accident-prone relationship. On January 27, a trigger-happy CIA contractor named Raymond Davis was stuck in Lahore traffic and shot dead two motorcyclists who approached him. A backup vehicle he summoned ran over and killed a bystander.