The visit of the leader of the US Pacific Command to Nepal took only 24 hours, but it spoke volumes about US concern over the fate of that increasingly troubled nation nestled up against the high Himalayas north of India.
Admiral William Fallon flew into Kathmandu earlier this month to meet with King Gyanendra and several Cabinet ministers, political party leaders and senior military officers. He was the highest-ranking US military officer to visit Nepal in living memory and his message was stark: "I can't help you until you take steps to establish participatory democracy."
Over the past year, Nepal has experienced a three-way struggle for power. Maoist insurgents seek to take over the country. The king has sought to consolidate authority in his own hands to fight the insurgents. An alliance of seven parties demands that parliamentary government be restored and has dallied with the Maoists in an attempt to gain political leverage.
US officials say that unless a turnaround is engineered in six to eight months, Nepal will collapse into Maoist hands. Besides bringing more instability to South Asia, that would enhance ties between the Maoists in Nepal and anti-government insurgents in northern India and possibly provide a new haven for terrorists.
The Bush administration has been cultivating new relations with India after decades in which the country was among the world's leading non-aligned nations and often tilted toward the Soviet Union during the Cold War. US President George W. Bush is visiting New Delhi this week and Nepal is certain to be on the agenda.
Soon after Fallon's journey to Kathmandu, US ambassador to Nepal James Moriarty delivered an unusually blunt address. He scolded the king and the political parties alike for failing to join hands to fight the 10-year Maoist insurgency in which 13,000 people have been killed.
"There is no other practical, workable solution to your constitutional crisis," he said.
About the same time, a spokesman for US Secretary of State Condolezza Rice abandoned the state department's customary diplomatic stance to criticize the king for failing to "initiate a dialogue with the political parties. His continuing refusal to take these steps is leading Nepal further down the path of violence and disorder."
In response, King Gyanendra issued a statement in an apparent effort to reach out to the politicians opposing him. He called on "all willing political parties to come forth to fully activate, at the earliest, the stalled democratic process in the greater interest of the nation."
A year ago, he dismissed parliament after claiming that the government had been ineffective in fighting the Maoists.
The king's appeal was immediately rejected by leaders of the seven-party alliance. Sushil Koirala, vice president of the Nepali Congress, was quoted in the English-language press in Kathmandu as saying the king's call for dialogue was intended only to deceive people.
"We will compromise neither with the king nor with the Maoists at the cost of democracy," he said.
For 10 years, the Maoists have rampaged through Nepal's countryside, murdering innocent civilians, conscripting young men and otherwise terrorizing the people. They threatened violence to candidates and voters in municipal elections earlier this month and were credited -- or blamed -- for keeping the turnout down to 20 percent to 25 percent.