STATE DEPARTMENT— Voters in Pakistan go to the polls next month for what is expected to be the country's first civilian-to-civilian transfer of power.
Pakistan's May election comes at a tumultuous time in the region, with Islamabad and Kabul both pushing for talks with the Taliban ahead of Afghan voting next year.
Ryan Crocker is a former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan and to Afghanistan.
"A stable Pakistan is crucial to a stable region. And that takes us back to the importance of these elections," he said.
With a credible electoral commission in place, he says, the vote comes down to institutions.
"Pakistan is in a state of institutional failure," said Crocker. "It's not a failed state, but you could argue it is a failing state. So these elections need to be well-run and credible in their outcome."
Pakistan's military has largely stayed out of this vote. U.S. Council on Foreign Relations fellow Daniel Markey says he believes the military has a lower political profile as it watches how the United States and Afghanistan engage the Taliban.
"They are very eager to figure out what the Americans are actually doing," said Markey. "They don't trust that the U.S. officials are necessarily letting them in on the reconciliation process. And they don't trust the Afghans or even the Afghan Taliban to tell them either. So their major concern is to be looped into the process."
Also part of the equation is Pakistan's natural gas pipeline with Iran, over which the United States is threatening to sanction Islamabad because of concerns about Iran's nuclear program.
But American University professor Akbar Ahmed says Pakistan's energy demands outweigh U.S. opposition.
"It's in the interests of the Pakistani government to have access to energy, and Iran is promising that through this gas pipeline. At the same time, the United States is doing everything to block this," said Ahmed.
Ahmed says Tehran is hoping that U.S.-led sanctions force Pakistan into a closer alliance with Iran.
"I don't think the United States should be pushing Pakistan to the point that it's at the brink," he said. "It's already at the brink in terms of the law-and-order breakdown in Pakistan, in terms of the economic crisis, in terms of really the sense of crisis that now envelopes Pakistan and the awareness in Pakistan that America is at the root cause of most of its problems."
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry wanted to go to Islamabad following his surprise trip to Kabul last week, but decided against it. A senior State Department official says they "did not want to lead anyone to conclude anything about where" U.S. interests may lie.