Pakistani protesters shout slogans during a demonstration against the U.S. in Lahore after a U.S. lawmaker introduced a resolution calling for self-determination in restive Baluchistan province. (ARIF ALI/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

The five visiting U.S. congressmen said their agenda could not have been more innocent: They came here this week simply to share their wisdom with Pakistani legislators on ways to strengthen democracy, right down to the nitty-gritty of committee oversight and constituent relations.

Instead, they walked straight into a buzz saw called Baluchistan.

The western province, Pakistan’s largest and poorest, blazed into the headlines here when, to the surprise of regional experts, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) introduced in the House a non-binding resolution advocating sovereignty for Baluchistan, where separatists have mounted several insurrections over the decades.

Pakistani leaders and the public exploded with anger, street protests and claims that the United States wants to dismember Pakistan. The resolution, though it had no force of law, stirred traumatic memories here of the 1971 secessionist uprising that led to the loss of East Pakistan and creation of Bangladesh.

It also stoked suspicions about why Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Rules Committee, Rep. James P. Moran (D-Va.) and three other members of Congress came to Islamabad for meetings with top officials on Thursday and Friday.

“It will further harm the already strained ties,” an unnamed Pakistani official was quoted as telling the newspaper Pakistan Today.

The visit was part of an exchange program called the House Democracy Partnership, which brings together U.S. lawmakers and those from countries with less-established democratic traditions. As they met with their counterparts, the Americans realized that even senior Pakistani lawmakers had no clue that a resolution such as Rohrabacher’s did not equate to a law or in any way dictate U.S. foreign policy.

Initally the meetings “were very tense,” Dreier said Friday, but the anti-U.S. rhetoric moderated after the visitors swore they did not support a breakaway Baluchistan.

“I want to convey to the people, and the government of Pakistan, that the U.S. is committed to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Pakistan,” Dreier told the local media after the group met Thursday with Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani and offered him similar assurances.

Since Pakistan’s creation in 1948, Baluch nationalists have waged five insurgencies seeking greater autonomy and control over the province’s considerable natural resources, most significantly its natural gas. The latest rebellion, launched in 2003, has included fierce clashes between the Pakistani military and the underground Baluchistan Liberation Army.

Twice in seven days, Pakistan’s Foreign Office summoned Richard Hoagland, the U.S. charge d’affaires in Islamabad, to convey its strong protests over perceived U.S. support for Baluch separatists — first after a hearing held by Rohrabacher and then over last week’s resolution.

The measure has two co-sponsors — Republicans Louie Gohmert of Texas and Steve King of Iowa — and is among thousands of bills and resolutions introduced so far in the 212th Congress.

“Dana Rohrabacher, Louie Gohmert and Steve King — I don’t think they represent the intellectual mainstream of congressional thought,” Moran said.

Rohrabacher’s Feb. 8 subcommittee hearing included strong criticism of human rights abuses in Baluchistan, which government critics say has long been financially neglected and exploited by Islamabad. Human rights advocates have documented hundreds of gruesome deaths and thousands of forced disappearances there in recent years, allegedly carried out by the Pakistani military.

The army and its intelligence service deny complicity and stoke rumors that outside enemies are behind the violence. “U.S., Israel, India responsible for killings in Baluchistan,” read a recent headline in the Nation newspaper, which cited “military sources” for the claim.

Many in the restive province applaud Rohrabacher for bringing wider notice to the bloody crackdown there. “Earlier, the situation of Baluchistan was not being given any importance in Islamabad,” said Yar Muhammad Badini, editor in chief of Baluchistan Today in Quetta, the province’s capital. “All Baluch nationalist groups have welcomed this resolution and they have termed it a ray of hope for Baluchs.”

In an interview, Rohrabacher said he has no Baluch constituents and has never visited the province, but added, “I have a long history of supporting self-determination movements.”

A former speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan, Rohrabacher said he once ardently supported Pakistan, whose spy services helped train the jihadists who routed Soviet occupiers from Afghanistan. Reagan memorably called those Islamist insurgents “freedom fighters.”

“I probably wrote that for Reagan,” Rohrabacher said.

But now he views Pakistan as an enemy that harbors terrorists who kill U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan.

“If people are being oppressed by a government that is also committing hostile acts against your country, it is logical to point that out,” Rohrabacher said. “They are committing crimes against us and committing crimes against their own people.”

“Dana does his own thing,” Moran said of his colleague from California. The delegation faced a “very negative” reception, he said, but one lesson wasn’t lost on anyone: Vigorous debate is what democracy is all about.

“I think it’s great,” Dreier said.