In his latest guest column for the BBC News website, journalist Ahmed Rashid finds President Pervez Musharraf increasingly isolated in Pakistan.
After five years in power is Gen Musharraf finally reaching out to the mainstream political parties, aiming to scuttle the army's present alliance with hardline Islamic parties?
Or is he once again just playing games to divide the growing opposition against him, as he finds himself politically isolated and tries to weather the storm unleashed by the "uniform issue"?
Benazir Bhutto - husband freed from jail
The speculation is rife, but there is no doubt that Pakistan is entering another period of intense political activity and possible turmoil.
President Musharraf's phone call to the family of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, whom he sent into exile in 2000, and the freeing of Benazir Bhutto's husband, Asif Ali Zardari, from jail, have unleashed a new round of political musical chairs.
"President Pervez Musharraf himself has decided to go for greater national reconciliation in the larger national interest," said Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed.
Mr Sharif and Ms Bhutto, who is in self-imposed exile in Abu Dhabi, were "very much in contact with the government", he added.
Even as Gen Musharraf continues to receive accolades from the US he is increasingly isolated at home
In fact, officers of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the president's civilian aides took the first step by meeting the two leaders, and other political figures such as Mr Zardari, to see under what terms and conditions both leaders would agree to have their parties take part in the political process and perhaps even return home themselves.
Both Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif have pledged to work together to restore full democracy and have refused to endorse Gen Musharraf's determination to continue being both president and army chief for the next five years.
Both the religious and mainstream political opposition are united in wanting Gen Musharraf to doff his uniform, and they have begun to hold protest rallies to make their point.
Even as Gen Musharraf continues to receive accolades from the US for his contribution to the war on terrorism, he is increasingly isolated at home.
The ruling Pakistan Muslim League (PML), made up of politicians largely co-opted by the military and which came to power after controversial general elections in 2002, has failed to play its role as a junior but active partner to the army.
Islamic hardliners are beginning to turn against the president
The general sacked the first PML prime minister, Zafarullah Khan Jamali, while the second, Shaukat Aziz, has been too insecure and politically inexperienced to make his presence felt.
Both prime ministers and the ruling PML have suffered from the overwhelming intrusion of Gen Musharraf and the army, who refuse to make room for a civilian government to function normally.
Meanwhile the army and the PML's alliance with the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), a grouping of hardline Islamic parties, is also fraying at the edges.
The MMA's main ideological component, the Jamiat-e-Islami, has turned against Gen Musharraf and is holding rallies demanding he give up his uniform.
The more populist component of the MMA, the Jamaat-e-Ulema Islam, is deeply divided as to what strategy to adopt.
American and European leaders have quietly suggested to the president that his alliance with the MMA, which still supports the Taleban and al-Qaeda, is an embarrassment and he should open a window to the ostracised mainstream parties - Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party and Nawaz Sharif's faction of the Pakistan Muslim League.
The military is still very much in control
However, what still unites the MMA and the ruling PML is an aversion to the mainstream parties. Some of their leaders have been mortified by Gen Musharraf's overtures to the former prime ministers, knowing full well that it could signal their demise from the corridors of power.
What all opposition parties and many Pakistanis would like to see is national reconciliation between all political parties, a timetable for the army's exit from the political scene and institutional changes to bring about a fair and level playing field for all parties for the next general elections in 2007.
President Musharraf's aides hint that that is precisely what he is aiming at, but the problem here is the general himself.
Nobody, not even members of the ruing PML, believe that the army is willing to surrender power to a truly empowered civilian government, or that Gen Musharraf is willing to play second fiddle to an elected prime minister.
Despite his conciliatory statements, Gen Musharraf shows no signs of doing either.
The ISI is still intrusive as ever on the political stage, the army's corps commanders still call the shots in the provinces and all major decisions are taken and announced by the president rather than the prime minister.
Senior officials of both the Bhutto and Sharif parties are convinced that Gen Musharraf is just playing games, trying to break up the alliance between them, creating further rifts between the mainstream and the Islamic opposition groupings - all in order to get over the hurdle of keeping his uniform.
And although the ruling PML and the MMA are nervous about any scenario in which Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif may return home, they know that no matter how poorly they have performed, the army is not about to dump them and surrender its powers to the former premiers.
The recent political flurry has demonstrated yet again that military rule is unsustainable in the medium or long term.
None of the three previous generals who have ruled Pakistan were able to institutionalise permanent military rule in the country once they departed from the scene.
Nor have the civilian political facades they erected, as Pakistan has at present, survived their own demise.
In 1999 Musharraf seized power with the promise that he would institutionalise "real democracy".
So far he has failed to deliver on that, but could there be some hope that Musharraf becomes the first ruling general to realise that the military cannot rule for ever?
To read Ahmed Rashid's future columns, bookmark bbcnews.com/southasia
Here is a selection of your comments on this column.
General Musharraf is the best leader Pakistan has got in decades. His policies have brought Pakistan an economic boom. He will also construct the Kalabagh Dam which is vital for the future of Pakistan. Democracy has always failed in Pakistan. It has failed to make the living conditions of the poor better. "We want development at any cost, even it costs democracy"
Rana Iradat, Lahore, Pakistan
Ahmed Rashid talks of military rule not being able to work in the middle and long term. How wrong can he be. The reality is that democratically elected politicians turn Pakistan into their own fiefdoms, they deceive the public that is mostly illiterate and line their own pockets... Pakistan is like a trawler heading for the rocks in a storm in the middle of the night with no lighthouse in sight.
Abid Bashir, UK
I agree with Mohd. Iqbal from Canada. With feudal system still strong rooted, embarrassingly low literacy rate, no value for merit in professional and institutional organisations and institutes, corrupt to the core politicians and political groups and corrupt armed forces, no honesty at the street level.. and this in a country which claims to be an Islamic republic! How can one expect any democratic process? Islam professes the ultimate democracy for all times, why then should we look to a western solution of democracy? Invest sincerely in a quality educational system for Pakistan, protect the women from mental and physical atrocities so that they can nourish their children with good straight up morals and values, teach Islam as it is meant to be, jihad of oneself before jihad with the sword - its a religion of peace and tolerance - and then maybe a few generations from today Pakistan stands a chance of being a democratic entity. A brighter future for Pakistan lies with our future generations, lets invest in them!
Mrs Adnan, USA
Mr Rashid always reads the situation very correctly. I would like to say that had 9/11 not happened it would have been very interesting to see where (prez.) Gen. Musharraf would have been today. I am not a Pakistani but if I was I would whole heartedly "salute" the General for his commendable leadership. Uniform controversy is all political nonsense, presidentship and military uniform are two eyes of Gen Musharraf, he cannot be the Pakistani leader without them, they need to go in tandem. Yes, he should and must win the hearts of "ordinary" Pakistani. By the way I am Indian who admires Gen. Musharraf's leadership qualities for pre/post 9/11, also for the effort he is doing to improve relationship with India.
Srinivas Angalkudru, USA
One more brilliant analysis by Mr Rashid. People who praise Gen. Musharraf and degenerate democracy in general do not understand the tenets of it. You have to let democratic institutions flourish. General Musharraf, with all supposedly good intentions is only interested in propagating his own rule. If he has so much of people support, why not participate in a free and fair election to come to power with people's mandate?
Dave Falgun, USA
You may call it a neutral and fair analysis on present political situation in Pakistan, but it is far from complete until the most essential part of the power politics in Pakistan is mentioned. Gen Musharraf's support base is from his ethnic base. Small but already most power ethnic group is made more dominant in Pakistan's civil and military hierarchy and continue to do so to perpetuate his rule, which Mr Ahmed Rashid fails to mention.
Imtiaz Chaudhary, USA
It is very easy to sit in America or Europe and claim that democracy is not needed in Pakistan and Musharraf is what Pakistan needs to keep the corrupt politicians away from power. The ruling parties of PML and PPPP are supporting Musharraf today while they used to support Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif in the past. They are as much corrupt today as they where in the past. It makes Musharraf's claim of supporting democratic reforms hollow. It is need of the hour to press Musharraf to hold a referendum about his dispositions as soon as possible to have the opinion of Pakistanis represented in the power corridors of Pakistan.
Raja Ikram Iqbal, Denmark
I don't agree with Mr Rashid's opinion. Musharraf is much more better leader then those corrupt politicians. Most of whom are not even educated. They didn't have a bicycle to rid before coming into politic and now they are the owners of properties worth millions. Fighting over uniform is childish, they (politicians) have to realize that it due to so called politicians that he (General)thinks it crucial to retain the uniform. This is the only way to keep corrupt politician in check.
Barkat Khan, Canada
Mr Rashid's column about President Musharraf is offensive to me as a Pakistani and also to millions of Pakistanis who support General Musharraf. President Musharraf is doing an excellent job as the leader of Pakistan and Muslims all over the world. This nonsense from Mr. Rashid about the uniform issue is an old story and there is no need for Mr. Rashid to lecture us on democracy in Pakistan. Pakistanis are not sophistictaed enough to have democracy and previous attempts at democracy in Pakistan has bought us leaders like Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif...(who)...are exiled overseas for their crimes. Don't lecture us Mr. Rashid about democracy in Pakistan.
Syed Hassan, USA
I am looking at a Stable and Strong Pakistan today, as compared to 5 years ago. I have no intentions to bring back all those leaders who played with Pakistan's wealth and money, and yet had NO idea what democracy is.
Syed M Zaidi, Boston,USA
It has been well pointed that Musharraf is following the principle of DIVIDE AND RULE. A wellknown priciple in the political history of sub-continent.
Farid ullah, Canada
This is a brilliant analysis.
Kudos to BBC for publishing it.
Ahmed Rashid's bias against President Musharraf is ruining the standards of journalism at the BBC. Pakistanis love Musharraf and Shaukat Aziz, two honest and capable men. The same cannot be said of the corrupt and useless politicians. The opposition parties "agitation" campaign has been a miserable failure while the government continues to function smoothly. It is the politicians who turned Government into a joke that are isolated,not President Musharraf and his supporters.
Musharraf does not need any new allies. He is a very tough leader. All he needs is his Army o stay loyal and hopefully he can pull Pakistan out of extremism by continuing to pursue the terrorists who seek Pakistan as a haven. Long may he stay and long may he live
Shahid, UK and Pakistan
(This is) a thorough reading about he prevailing political scenario in Pakistan. BUT what you fail to realise is that Pakistan is safer with Musharraf in charge. Would it be Benazir or Sharif there would have been the US army in every street in Pakistan. He has balanced everything quite well. He should stay as the Army Chief and President for at least 6 more years until a stable democracy can be established because in Pakistan Democracy and Stability are two different things....
The saga of "Pakistani" democracy continues. The previous two generals who ruled Pakistan for long periods of time caused irreparable damage to the country, I wonder something similar would have to happen before General Musharraf will give up power. As long as there are politicians who are willing to sell their soul to get into the government, the a rmy will continue to dominate.
Mansoor Hussain, USA
Mr Rashid is right that Gen Musharraf and his men may not be the answer but if he believes that Mr Sharif and Ms Bhutto are then what is the question. Vast rampant corruption, economic collapse and electoral corruption and outright vote stealing by dynastic feudal landowners marked their tenure.
If Mr Rashid has another solution in mind it would be great to hear it, for to me as an outsider there seems very little difference between Gen Musharraf & his opponents as they divy up the spoils of power.
David Morgan, Uk
Mr Rashid. Keeping in my what is going on in Pakistan, what are your thoughts on the progress made, if any, in comparison to the rest of the democricies that have preceeded Prez. Musharaf, in particular after Gen Zia.
Ahsan Jamil, USA
Well I am impressed by the column. He is a great columist and read the situation really well!
Shakeel Sabir Khan, South Africa
Ahmed Rashid's comments and reporting seem both acute and eminently sensible. His long and proven track record make him someone to listen to regarding developments in South and Central Asia.
James Hurley, USA
Different kinds of democratic systems are enforced in different countries of the world. There are also different punishments for same crimes in different countries of the world. Therefore it is not right to assume that American type of democracy will work for Pakistan. Pakistan needs a system which must be mixture of army and civilian. Western democracy is never going to work in Pakistan where there is so much illiteracy and poverty that one can buy vote in return of one time meal (DAWAT) or for a ride on the car to the poling station. At the same time democracy has nothing to do with Islam Pakistan is an Islamic country and there must be an Islamic system. Why we are crying to have democracy in Pakistan? Even our Islamic political parties are doing the (TASBEE) of democracy all the time, how is kidding who? On one hand west is enemy of Islam and on the other hand we are asking to adopt their system, what kind of logic is it?
Mohammad Iqbal, Canada.