Pakistan gets a new president on Saturday: The country's parliament and provincial assemblies appear likely to choose Asif Ali Zardari, whose wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, was assassinated last December.
The stakes are high. President Pervez Musharraf's sudden resignation last month introduced more uncertainty in Pakistan, and U.S. officials say the al-Qaida leadership is taking advantage of the political turmoil to strengthen its presence in the country.
The chief political adversaries in Pakistan right now are Zardari and his rival, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, but others have joined the raging political debate in the country including Ayman al-Zawahiri, second in command of the al-Qaida network, behind Osama bin Laden.
Last month Zawahiri, a native Egyptian, released a message addressed, he said, "to the Pakistan Army and the People of Pakistan."
"I have decided to speak to you in English, in order to communicate directly with you and bring your attention to the imminent and grave dangers which are facing Pakistan," Zawahiri said.
Al-Qaida moved to Pakistan after it was pushed out of Afghanistan during the war there in the fall of 2001. The network has training camps in the mountainous areas along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, and U.S. intelligence officials say some al-Qaida operations in the West originate in Pakistan.
But the al-Qaida leaders also devote considerable effort to propaganda activities in Pakistan. In his message last month, Zawahiri took aim at those Pakistanis who have cooperated with the United States in military operations inside the country.
"How can the Pakistani officer or soldier be convinced that he is guarding the dignity and high repute of Pakistan when he receives orders from his commanders to launch a new massacre with every visit of a senior American official," Zawahiri said.
U.S. officials say there are relatively few senior al-Qaida leaders in Pakistan, but they work closely with the Pakistani Taliban, which is waging its own fight against the Pakistani government.
Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism analyst at Georgetown University, says al-Qaida's assistance to the Taliban goes well beyond military advice.
"They exercise a form of stewardship where they become enablers," Hoffman says. "In other words, strengthening the Taliban's capacities in what al-Qaida knows so well — how to manipulate and exploit public opinion, how to create crises of confidence for governments internally and then, in turn, how to take advantage of that vacuum and use the militants and their approach as a solution to it."
The political instability in Pakistan in recent weeks has apparently opened more space for the Taliban and its al-Qaida backers. Just two weeks ago, suicide bombers managed to penetrate the perimeter of Pakistan's largest munitions factory, triggering an explosion that killed about 70 people.
It was just one of a series of attacks on government targets. Hoffman says militants have threatened more such attacks if the government refuses to suspend military operations directed against them.
"A bit more than a week later, the government announced it was declaring a unilateral cease-fire of operations in Bashwar — the justification they gave was they were declaring a cease-fire because of the Muslim month of Ramadan. So it may well be that these threats are proving effective and that you have a government now that is intimidated by the militants."
To the extent the Pakistani government is unable to assert itself in areas controlled by the Taliban, al-Qaida is able to operate more freely. A senior intelligence official says the al-Qaida sanctuaries in Pakistan are in danger of becoming genuine safe havens.
Pakistani officials, meanwhile, have in recent weeks apparently recognized the challenges they face. One top interior ministry official this week said Zawahiri and his wife have been moving around inside Pakistan — something Pakistani officials have previously been reluctant to acknowledge.
A series of U.S. missile strikes against Taliban and al-Qaida targets in the last week have been vigorously denounced in public, but Republican Congressman Christopher Shays of Connecticut, who just returned from a trip to Pakistan, says the government officials he met there seemed privately willing to accommodate the U.S. actions.
"It is more like a yellow light and it's if you screw up, we're going to go after you and if our populus doesn't notice that much we won't make a big deal out of it. That's the general feeling you got," Shays said.
As for the danger of "screwing up," the missile strikes are effective only if there's good intelligence on the intended targets. The information mostly has to come from the Pakistani people themselves. And in the words of a senior intelligence official: "That's our biggest problem."