With key ally Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf weakened by an election drubbing of his ruling party, the United States is now forced to work with a more broad-based government run by civilians in waging the "war on terror," experts say.
Unofficial results of Monday's polls showed a rout of the pro-Musharraf ruling party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Q (PML-Q), placing the president at risk of a hostile parliament that, in theory, could seek his impeachment.
The election setback came just three months after Musharraf, who seized power in a 1999 coup, resigned as the powerful army chief, leaving him politically weakened in nuclear-armed Pakistan.
"I think that one of the mistakes we have made over the years is putting all our eggs in the Musharraf basket," said Robert Hathaway of the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
"Musharraf is clearly a weakened figure today and I think that it behooves us to work closely with, and moreover give the appearance of working closely with, whatever government ultimately comes out of this election," he told AFP.
As much as anything else, Hathaway said, the United States must demonstrate to the Pakistani people that it is on their side.
There are already signs that President George W. Bush's administration is delinking itself from Musharraf, one expert said.
"Even in the past few days there has been some sort of a
disassociation from Pervez Musharraf. (US) Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke of 'a Pakistan policy' rather than a Musharraf policy," noted Frederic Grare of the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
"If I were Washington, I would definitely move away from the present regime and adopt a hands-off approach," said the visiting French scholar.
Bush has viewed Musharraf as a personal friend and top ally in his war against Al Qaeda and other Islamic militants following the September 11, 2001 attacks even though he was not popularly elected.
The party of slain former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, who was backed by the United States until her pre-election murder, and another group led by two-time premier Nawaz Sharif are seen headed for victory in the elections. Signs are a coalition government will emerge after the polls.
The White House, welcoming the elections as "largely fair," also moved quickly to court with any new government in Islamabad "as partners in counterterrorism."
"The threat from extremists is just as grave and very immediate for the people of Pakistan, as evidenced by some of the violence there recently," said spokeswoman Dana Perino. The CIA believes Bhutto's murder was Al Qaeda-linked.
A key question is whether Washington can work with the newly elected administration in flushing out Al Qaeda and other militant leaders, who US intelligence officials believe are hiding in Pakistan and planning another US attack.
The United States has been nervous about Sharif's reported ties with Islamist groups in the past. He had also been critical of Washington, which did not help get him back into Pakistan when he was in exile in Saudi Arabia.
"Nawaz Sharif hasn't done himself any favours in terms of working with the United States and yet he is now in a powerful position. So it puts Washington in a tough bind," said former senior State Department official Daniel Markey, presently with the non-partisan Council on Foreign Relations.
Sharif, who was removed by Musharraf in a bloodless coup, could throw up new problems to the United States if he gains power, especially if he moves to revamp the military led by General Ashfaq Kayani.
Kayani is viewed in Washington as a professional soldier uninterested in meddling in Pakistan's internal politics who could facilitate US-Pakistan counterterrorism cooperation.
"What the people here will be most concerned with is a prospect of a real purge with the (Pakistani) army and intelligence. If Nawaz Sharif really gains power, that is something he will definitely go for," Markey said.
Washington has poured $10 billion in military aid to the Musharraf administration over the last seven years.
The Democratic-led US Congress is already pressuring Bush to tie all future US aid to Pakistan to promoting a free and democratic Pakistan and combating violent radicalism. (AFP)
Pakistani polls to force US to wean away from Musharraf