The US is now tilting toward Pakistan's army elite and moderate forces at the expense of Pakistani General President Pervez Musharraf in a high-stakes move to save a key ally in the "war on terror," analysts said.
The analysts have sensed a US policy shift in the last few days that appears to have only been reinforced with the visit to Islamabad by US Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, who warned Musharraf on Saturday that Washington would review its military aid to Pakistan unless he lifts the emergency rule imposed on Nov. 3.
Negroponte, the most senior US official to visit since Musharraf declared emergency rule, urged him to call off the measures, release all political detainees, lift curbs on the media and ensure free elections.
If military aid is put under review, "this is a pleasant surprise for me. The United States had supported Musharraf rather than the army as an institution," said Hassan Abbas, an analyst at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.
"Negroponte must have said this after a lot of analysis substantiating that Musharraf's days are over and that the way Musharraf is trying to hang onto power, this will potentially create a rift within the army," Abbas said.
The army, run by a professional pro-Western elite, is key to the US-led "war on terrorism," which has seen setbacks in Pakistan, as Taliban and al-Qaida militants make inroads in northwestern areas bordering Afghanistan.
A threat to cut off military aid, Abbas said, would further focus minds among a military elite that relies on the US for training officers and supplying it with heavy weaponry such as fighter aircraft.
Military circles in Pakistan have already told Abbas there is "increasing unrest" within the army elite who feel Musharraf has sullied not only their popular image but distracted them from their security tasks.
Security analyst Andrew Koch also said there were signs that the military had had enough of politics.
Wendy Chamberlin, the US ambassador to Pakistan from 2001 to 2002 who is now president of the Middle East Institute in Washington, said on Thursday there are signs Washington is cooling toward Musharraf.
The Los Angeles Times reported yesterday that Pentagon officials were already moving to overhaul the system of US military aid to Pakistan, aiming to pay Islamabad for achieving specific objectives rather than reimbursing it for money it says it has spent.
Abbas said Musharraf's deputy in the army, the US-trained General Ashfaq Kiyani whom Negroponte met, could succeed him as head of the army and steer Pakistan out of its crisis.
Under Kiyani, the Pakistani army would remain influential but retreat behind the political scene, lift martial law and back general elections in which former prime minister Benazir Bhutto or another political leader could become prime minister, he said.
Meanwhile, the New York Times on Saturday reported that Washington is implementing a top-secret program designed to help Pakistan safeguard its nuclear weapons as unrest spreads across the country.
Citing unnamed current and former senior government officials, the newspaper said the administration of US President George W. Bush has spent almost US$100 million on the program over the past six years.
The Times said the nuclear security program for Pakistan included delivery of helicopters, night-vision goggles and nuclear detection equipment needed to secure nuclear materials, warheads and laboratories.