The Bush administration says it expects to work with whatever government is formed in Pakistan after Monday's elections and hopes that the new government will work with President Pervez Musharraf.
But many critics say this is the time for the United States to start changing its approach and stop simply relying on Musharraf. They say this election could provide just that opportunity.
Many see the vote as a defeat for U.S. policy — a sign that Pakistanis are fed up with Musharraf and the Bush administration's attitude that he's an indispensable ally in the war on terrorism.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack says the United States does not see the vote as a setback — but rather a step forward for Pakistan in terms of democracy and a potential step forward for U.S. efforts to tackle violent extremism. He urges the political parties to work together.
"We are going to continue our work with President Musharraf — and whatever that new government may be — on goals of our national interests, and we have a deep national interest in fighting violent extremists, breaking up those terrorist cells that may operate from Pakistani territory," McCormack says.
Sen. Joseph Biden (D-DE), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, says the election results should encourage a real shift in U.S. policy.
Speaking in Islamabad Tuesday, Biden called for a tripling of nonmilitary assistance and an approach that is much broader — and less focused on Musharraf.
Brian Katulis, an analyst with the Center for American Progress, is also in Pakistan to observe the vote. He says the election does offer the U.S. an opportunity.
"This represents a possible opening to shift to a new strategy that is not so focused on personalities but is rather focused on developing a more comprehensive approach that's trying to build stronger relations with the Pakistani people and to help the development of this country, not purely through the military lens but through economic development," Katulis says.
A former State Department official, Daniel Markey, sees another potential opening in the North-West Frontier Province — part of the country where the U.S. says al-Qaida and Taliban militants have found a haven.
A Pashtun nationalist party and the late Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party performed well in the region — defeating a group of religious parties. Markey says the U.S. might be able to make some inroads by helping the local government with development aid.
"This new government could actually be very helpful to the United States and to the West in terms of providing a local face of moderation — one that is inclined to treat problems of militancy and extremism and work with the international community to do so. I think they could be a useful partner for the United States as we look to do more in the tribal areas and in that part of Pakistan," he says.
Markey, who is now with the Council on Foreign Relations, says the likely changes at the top in Islamabad could also be positive. As he puts it, it is better to have civilians running the country, and elected leaders rather than coup leaders in government. But there are dangers in the short run — as the backroom deal-making gets under way.
"All of the Pakistani civilians, political leaders, are going to be very distracted from any issues that have to do with things the United States cares most about and are probably going to be so focused on political maneuvering that they will really neither devote time nor energy toward treating these problems that we see as so incredibly urgent," Markey says.
U.S. diplomats have been reaching out to all the players, but the Bush administration is likely to stay relatively silent in public about the results until the final tally is in. As Markey says, there's nothing that hurts a Pakistani candidate like the kiss from Washington.
Pakistan's opposition parties said Tuesday they would try to form a coalition government after voters dealt President Pervez Musharraf's ruling party a resounding defeat at the polls.
The Pakistan Peoples Party of slain former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto emerged from Monday's election as the largest party in the 342-seat National Assembly, although it failed to win an outright majority.
The results cast doubt on the political future of Musharraf, a former general who seized power in a 1999 coup. He was re-elected to a five-year term last October, in a parliamentary ballot that sparked widespread protest.
Asif Ali Zardari, Bhutto's widower and head of the PPP, said the party had the right to form a coalition government, adding there would be no place in it for the pro-Musharraf Pakistan Muslim League (PML).
"As the largest political force of the country, we demand that we be allowed to make the government," he told a news conference in Islamabad.
Zardari, who took over the leadership of the PPP after Bhutto's death, said he would try to persuade Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister Musharraf overthrew, to join a coalition.
Speaking at a news conference in Lahore, Sharif urged Musharraf to accept his defeat.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Washington will continue to work with Musharraf and whatever government emerges to support the U.S. fight against violent Islamic extremism.
Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who was speaking in Pakistan, said the results should encourage the U.S. to shift its policy away from supporting one person, Musharraf, to a broader-based approach.
The private Geo TV network said the PPP and another group led by Sharif had so far won 153 seats, more than half of the 272-seat National Assembly.
Musharraf's party was a distant third with 38 seats. A raft of party stalwarts and former Cabinet ministers lost in their constituencies.
Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, head of the Pakistan Muslim League-Q, told AP Television News that "we accept the results with an open heart" and "will sit on opposition benches" in the new parliament.
While Musharraf has promised to work with any new government, he is hugely unpopular and his rivals are unlikely to be in any hurry to work with him. At best, he faces the prospect of remaining president with sharply diminished powers and facing a public hostile to him.