A high-flying US diplomat betraying her country to spy for Pakistan may sound like an outlandish plotline of the spy drama Homeland, but in recent weeks that real life allegation has added extra intrigue to the volatile relationship between the two supposedly allied countries.
The news that a former US ambassador called Robin Raphel has been the subject of an FBI counter-intelligence investigation shocked the foreign policy establishments of both Washington and Islamabad when it was reported last month.
Officials took the extraordinary step in late October of searching Raphel's house, finding classified documents that should not have left the State Department. Raphel's security clearance has been revoked and her job at the office of the special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan effectively terminated.
Few details have been made public about the case but the New York Times reported the investigation was triggered after a Pakistani official was bugged claiming Islamabad had US secrets from a prominent former State Department official.
Raphel herself has expressed confidence the affair will soon be resolved, in her only public statement on the matter.
The former CIA analyst first travelled to the region in the 1970s, but became an expert on Pakistan after working on South Asian affairs during the 1990s. She earned the enduring dislike of some in US intelligence circles for her staunch defence of Pakistan, a country many officials say supports militant groups with American blood on their hands.
After retirement in 2005, she worked as a paid lobbyist for the Pakistani government before going back to work for the State Department in 2009, with a key role in helping to disburse billions of dollars of non-military aid to Pakistan.
Former colleagues have reacted with disbelief to the turn of events. Many assume a career diplomat who served as US ambassador to Tunisia must have fallen foul of what one described as a "normal bureaucratic snafu" that will soon blow over.
"People who know her are mystified, with very few people believing she was actually spying," said one habitué of the Washington foreign policy circuit. "She hasn't wanted to talk about it, but she's still making appearances around town at seminars and social events."
But few in Pakistan's community of analysts and foreign policy experts are prepared to believe Raphel has simply fallen foul of an overzealous government machine.
"I think there is an element of a witch hunt," said Simbal Khan, a foreign policy expert in Islamabad and friend of Raphel. "It just sounds so weird - sharing classified information when she is such a consummate professional."
In Islamabad it is widely assumed Raphel was targeted for being that rarest of things: a sympathetic American friend of Pakistan.
Her husband, Arnold Raphel, served as US ambassador to the country at the height of joint US-Pakistani effort to end the Soviet Union's occupation of neighbouring Afghanistan by covertly arming Islamist jihadists.
He died in the same mysterious Pakistani military plane crash that killed General Zia-ul-Haq, the country's then military dictator in 1988.
It was during her time as assistant secretary of state for south and central Asia in the early 1990s, that she delighted many in Pakistan when she was outed as the source of off-record comments that questioned India's historic claim to all of the disputed Himalayan state of Kashmir.
It elicited a furious response from the Indian establishment and a front-page story in the Hindustan Times that labelled her the "goddess of Indian terrorists, secessionists and other outlaws".
It was also the period when another bete noire of India, the Taliban, were coming to power in Afghanistan. At the time the US hoped the Pakistan-sponsored movement might bring order to the civil-war-racked country.
Simbal Khan says some of Delhi's antipathy may have rubbed off on the many US diplomats of Indian ancestry she has encountered in Washington.
"There is a very hardcore anti-Pakistan lobby in the State Department, including many very smart people who are as American as anyone else but they do have these leanings."
But the Raphel affair has blown up just as Pakistan and the US appear to have moved beyond a particularly fraught period of mutual distrust and recrimination.
Just a year ago US diplomats regularly complained about the immense difficulties of getting visas to come to Pakistan and of being tailed around Islamabad by low-level intelligence officers on motorbikes.
Relations had been driven to an unprecedented low in 2011, by the secret navy Seal raid into Pakistani territory to kill Osama bin Laden and the disastrous killing of 24 Pakistani border troops by US warplanes.
But all of that now appears to be ancient history. Last month, Washington gave the full red carpet treatment to General Raheel Sharif, Pakistan's relatively new army chief who spent nearly two weeks on a US tour.
The US is delighted that under General Sharif Pakistan has finally launched a long-delayed military operation to stamp out the terrorist networks that for years had been embedded in North Waziristan, a semi-autonomous tribal "agency" bordering Afghanistan.
There has been a dramatic upswing in counter-terrorism cooperation between the two countries, with both sides engaged in what appears to be quid pro quo deals to target their respective enemies.
Last week, Pakistan said it had killed a senior al-Qaida leader called Adnan el Shukrijumah while US drones have been active in North Waziristan without any of the official acrimony that used to accompany them.
In return, the US returned a top commander of the Pakistani Taliban who was arrested by US troops in Afghanistan last year.
American air strikes have also targeted Pakistani Taliban militants in the eastern Afghan border province of Kunar.
And yet Western diplomats are all too aware that previous bouts of hope that Pakistan was on the point of abandoning its "double game" of taking billions of dollars in US aid while secretly supporting America's enemies came to nothing.
They say they will believe it when they see it - namely clear steps by Pakistan to rein in the Taliban or at least encourage them to start negotiating with the Afghan government.
So far the signs are not promising, with an upsurge of attacks in the Afghan capital that has been dubbed the Taliban's "winter offensive". Against the ups and downs of the US-Pakistan relationship it is likely conspiracy-minded Pakistanis are over-reading the drama surrounding Raphel.
Hussain Haqqani, a former Pakistani ambassador to the US, now working as a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, said it was unlikely Raphel had committed anything more than an unfortunate mistake in taking documents home.
But the fact that she is being vigorously investigated is a sign of the level of distrust with which Pakistan is viewed in the US.
"In another era this would not be an issue. But today senior people in the State Department are asking whether instead of thinking of Pakistan an errant ally we should see it as a clever enemy that poses as a friend." n
—Courtesy The Guardian