A US think tank has asked the Bush administration to link any further support to the regime of President Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan directly to his keeping the promise to hold early, free and fair elections and return to civilian rule.
The Heritage Foundation has also called for "benchmarks" that would limit the role of the military in Pakistan's affairs to ensure democratic functioning in the future.
The News International newspaper on Saturday called the study "stunning", noting that the Heritage Foundation was "the most influential think tank of America," and "the strongest bastion of conservative power," having among its luminaries many of the rightwing neo-cons who dominate the Bush administration.
The foundation has reminded the Bush administration that the US law forbids supporting a government that has come by staging a military coup and that Musharraf has been supported through an annual waiver of that law.
That being the case, any further support should be linked to his holding free and fair polls and facilitate participation of all parties, especially the "secular" parties led by two exiled former prime ministers, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif.
Musharraf has reiterated his promise of holding elections next year but told the media earlier this month that Bhutto and Sharif would not be allowed to participate.
This has been rejected by the two as also Altaf Hussain, the third exiled leader who heads the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM).
Although the study released in Washington on last Thursday is entitled "Denying Terrorists Safe Haven in Pakistan," the newspaper report speaks only of the role of democracy and that of the armed forces.
"Although the military is unlikely to submit fully to a civilian government in the near term, Washington should set benchmarks that begin to restrict the military's role in Pakistani politics," the policy paper said.
The paper said: "The Pakistan military's pervasive involvement in civilian affairs has stifled the development of civil society and the establishment of democratic institutions.
Pakistan has been ruled by the military for over half of its existence. Even during periods of civilian rule, the military has wielded tremendous power over decision-making".
It said promoting a more open and transparent political process in Pakistan would also help curb the influence of extremist groups, thereby reducing support for terrorism.
The 5,000-word paper suggests specific steps, which the US should take to strengthen US policy towards Pakistan and to press Islamabad to address the roots of violent extremism.
The US, the paper suggests, should develop a more proactive policy to support the restoration of democracy.
Washington should convey a consistent public message that called for free, fair, and transparent elections in 2007 and emphasised the importance of democracy as a way to lessen the influence of extremist forces.
Meanwhile, a well-known Pakistan specialist has warned that not pushing Musharraf towards allowing the participation of all political formations and leaders in the elections would only produce a rightwing coalition "inclined to be more confrontational with India and Afghanistan".
Writing in the Newark Star Ledger, Marvin G Weinbaum says: "The US has too much at stake to remain as passive as it has.
Washington refrained from cautioning or criticising Musharraf when he claimed the presidency through a stacked referendum, arbitrarily enhanced his constitutional powers, pre-cooked national elections, and then reneged on a pledge to take off his uniform.
The US thereby managed to reinforce the impression it prefers military governments to democratic ones.
"A failure now to encourage Musharraf to open the political system will doom hopes for progressive policies. It will only produce a coalition inclined to be more confrontational with India and Afghanistan.
For many in Pakistan it would also confirm the US as a fickle ally that will once again desert Pakistan if it should succeed against Al-Qaeda.
For an alliance that endures, Washington must counter the widely held view that the American partnership is with Musharraf and the army, not with the people of Pakistan."
Weinbaum, a scholar-in-residence at the Middle East Institute in Washington and a former US State Department analyst for Pakistan, wrote: "Musharraf and his backers will have to resort to large-scale electoral manipulation in order to ensure a parliamentary majority.
Legitimacy will also be an issue should Musharraf decide, as expected, to seek re-election from lame duck national and provincial assemblies and insist on remaining army chief too."