Violence has continued to spiral in Pakistan as the United States and other Western countries watch closely to see if moderate political parties that made gains in recent parliamentary elections will work together to form a coalition government. Analysts specializing in South Asia are expressing concern the new government may pursue a different approach to fighting Taliban and al-Qaida-linked militants by seeking negotiations rather than taking military action. VOA correspondent Meredith Buel has more in this background report from Washington.
Top U.S. officials say the stakes are very high in Pakistan now that South Asia has become a region of vastly increased importance to the United States.
The area along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan is now the main battleground in the fight against al-Qaida and the Taliban, and Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte says cooperation with the government in Islamabad remains a critical component of the U.S. strategy against terrorism.
"Successful American engagement with a stable and democratic Pakistan is vital to our national security interests. Pakistan has been indispensable to our worldwide struggle against radical terrorist groups. As Afghanistan's neighbor, Pakistan plays a pivotal role in the coalition's war effort there. Without peace and stability on the Pakistani side of the border, success in Afghanistan will prove illusive," he said.
U.S. policy has centered on Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, who has been a strong ally since seizing power in a coup in 1999.
However, the political party loyal to Mr. Musharraf suffered a major defeat in last month's parliamentary elections, while the parties of slain opposition leader Benazir Bhutto and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif finished first and second.
Jonah Blank, the chief policy advisor for South Asia for the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, says the changes in the Pakistani political scene are causing anxiety among foreign policy planners.
"From a U.S. perspective, there is a certain amount of trepidation. Some people within U.S. government circles still cling to the belief that Musharraf was the last best hope, or is the last best hope, for American goals in Pakistan. Others feel that there is no choice but to work with the political parties and are not quite sure whether that will actually be an effective way of realizing our goals," he said.
Daniel Markey, a former State Department official who is now a senior fellow for South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, says it is time for the United States to change its focus from President Musharraf. "Musharraf is a diminished asset. He is exceedingly unpopular. No one disagrees with that. The time has come to really get on sort of the right side of history, essentially for the United States to jump into the future and work with more popular forces in Pakistan," he said.
While Pakistan's political parties negotiate, Islamist militants continue to launch suicide attacks that have sown fear throughout the nation.
Hundreds of people have been killed in attacks so far this year, despite the presence of more than 100,000 Pakistani troops near the border with Afghanistan.
This has led some Pakistani politicians to call for more dialog with the militants and a reduction in the reliance on military force, especially in the mostly lawless tribal areas.
Robert Grenier, the former head of the CIA's Counter Terrorism Center and a former agency's Station Chief in Islamabad, says while negotiations with the militants may be tempting, they will not work. "Having gone through what we recently had with the murder of Benazir Bhutto, in the long run there really is no separate peace to be had with the extremists. On the other hand, I think that there is going to be a real temptation, certainly at given points in time, to try to make that sort of a separate peace," he said.
Nicholas Schmidle, a researcher who spent the past two years in Pakistan and traveled frequently to the country's tribal areas, says since al-Qaida and Taliban militants were driven from much of Afghanistan by the U.S.-led invasion, they have taken over remote areas of Pakistan by killing some 250 tribal elders.
He says peace treaties negotiated by the Pakistani government are no longer being signed by elders who derive their legitimacy and authority from their place in the tribal system.
"They are being signed by Taliban commanders who have slaughtered the tribal elders and who have stepped up into their place and saying we are now the new warlord in charge of this area. So in that sense we have seen a dramatic transformation of what constitutes authority in the tribal areas," he said.
U.S. officials are concerned that a strategy of negotiation could give Islamist extremists a permanent sanctuary in Pakistan.
They believe an earlier cease-fire in the tribal areas enabled al-Qaida and Taliban fighters to regroup and plot attacks against the United States and other targets.
Grenier says any similar agreement in the future would backfire. "It is unsustainable in terms of what the al-Qaida safe haven is likely to mean in terms of threats to the West. The West is not going to stand still for it. It is unsustainable in terms of what it could mean for the insurgency in Afghanistan. Sooner or later there is going to be some additional outrage in Pakistan itself," he said.
U.S. officials are concerned that the growing insurgency in Pakistan is becoming stronger and is spreading into the more populated areas of the country.
Analysts say the recent election has significantly weakened President Musharraf, and it is not yet clear whether the parties who have gained power in parliament will be able to agree on a strategy to curb the violence, which threatens the stability of Pakistan.