The United States has huge stakes riding on elections in Pakistan next week, from the future of ally President Pervez Musharraf to the fate of its anti-terrorism war, experts and lawmakers said on Friday.
Pakistan, a nuclear-armed Muslim nation that shares a long border with Afghanistan, elects a new parliament on Monday amid rising militant violence and concerns about how free and fair the vote can be under restrictions on civil liberties.
The February 18 election, delayed from January 8 after the assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto in a suicide attack on December 27, could help volatile Pakistan find a way out of nearly a year of political strife.
But an outcome that is disputed or rejected by many Pakistanis as flawed and unfair could spark greater chaos that would not easily be confined to Pakistan.
"The stakes are very high here," Senator John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat and former presidential nominee who is among three senior US lawmakers travelling to Pakistan to observe the vote, said.
"I hope the government understands that merely clinging to power meets nobody's objectives because it will wind up actually playing into the hands of the radicals and of the instability not only of the country, but of the region."
More than 400 people have been killed in clashes between troops and militants in bombings and suicide attacks this year in Pakistan, with the past week alone claiming 24 lives in bomb attacks on political workers.
The United States, under criticism in Pakistan and at home for backing Musharraf through a political crackdown he launched in 2007, will send observers and has helped fund the training of Pakistani election observers, the State Department said.
"The real question is do the parties more or less accept the outcome as a reflection of the vote and start to form coalitions," said a senior US official.
"If that happens, then there is a way forward for Pakistan. If they don't accept the results as a reflection of the vote, then we've got real problems," the official told Reuters on condition of anonymity because of the issue's sensitivity.
Personalities vs Institutions
Senator Joe Biden, chairman of the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, said Pakistan's future was intertwined with the fate of Afghanistan, where the United States has 29,000 troops fighting the Taliban and other Islamist militant followers of Al-Qaeda, the group behind the September 11 attacks.
"If Afghanistan fails or Pakistan falls prey to fundamentalism, it will be a setback of historic proportions," Biden, a Delaware Democrat, said before his trip to Pakistan.
US experts on Pakistan said pre-election problems, from an election commission and courts still packed with Musharraf appointees to restrictions on the media and constraints on candidates, point to a less-than-perfect poll.
"This is not going to be a free and fair election like Switzerland," said Christine Fair of the RAND Corporation, a US-based global policy think tank.
US Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher told a Congressional panel last month that Musharraf's imposition of emergency rule for six weeks from late November ended "with some serious distortions left on the process of the elections, with some things that still need to be corrected."
Rick Barton, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the US mistake that may prove most costly was, in backing Musharraf, "we've invested in an individual at the cost of the country."
"A nation of laws and not of men, that's the essence of our system, but what have we done in Pakistan? We've personalized this, as opposed to elevating a system that will give all the citizens a sense of fairness," Barton said.
Boucher, the top US diplomat for South Asia, was asked during the Congressional hearings last month whether Washington still viewed Musharraf as indispensable.
He indicated the United States expected to deal with a broadly based power structure.
Musharraf, who gave up his military role and was elected president in November, is "going to be one player ... a man along with a newly elected prime minister and a number of other government institutions" after the February 18 vote, Boucher said.
Gideon Rose, managing editor of Foreign Affairs magazine, said there were no good policy proposals on how to deal with Pakistan because of the intrinsic difficulty of the situation.
"Nobody knows what to do about Pakistan," Rose recently told reporters, saying none of the US presidential campaigns had generated useful ideas "because the policy doesn't have a particularly good answer."
"With Pakistan we can't end the problem and we can't reduce our exposure to it."