By Brajesh Upadhyay
BBC News, Washington
The increasing challenges to President Pervez Musharraf's grip on power are forcing the United States to explore an alternative course to keep its crucial ally on board in the "war against terror", former state department officials and Pakistan experts in the US say.
Musharraf - the 'best hope' for the US
Experts say that there is a sense in Washington that Pakistan is going through a period of political transition and that Gen Musharraf needs greater popular legitimacy in order to muster grassroots support for the US counter-terrorism agenda.
There's a growing realisation that the US must not only have a partnership with Gen Musharraf and the army but also have a partnership with the people of Pakistan.
The aim now in Washington, many observers believe, is to treat not just Gen Musharraf but also the Pakistani nation as an irreplaceable ally and to bolster the perception that US would prefer to deal with a popular civilian government.
Daniel Markey, who served on the state department's policy planning staff until earlier this year, says that the thinking now is that the US needs to publicly lend support to a strategy which would include elections, the eventual phasing out of Gen Musharraf's hold on power and the bringing in of someone with a more stable political base.
That would appear to include former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
Ms Bhutto's personal popularity as a prime minister, the thinking goes, would bolster President Musharraf's weakening support.
Ms Bhutto's talks with Gen Musharraf have stalled
"They are trying to walk the fine line between pulling away from Gen Musharraf, who they believe has been a good partner, and also trying at the same time to advance what they hope would be more of a transition in the direction of democracy," says Mr Markey, a senior fellow for India, Pakistan and South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.
"It's going to be a tough balancing act."
The growing anti-Americanism in Pakistan makes the task even tougher.
A recent survey in Pakistan shows the US to be even less popular than Pakistan's arch-rival India and any leader seen to be too close to the US may not get the support needed to carry out US objectives.
The way out, say experts, is to convince Pakistanis, both within the army and the broader public, that the US goal is to have Pakistan as a partner and not just an "outsourcing mechanism" in the "war against terror".
Marvin Weinbaum, a former Pakistan analyst at the state department, says that the US is struggling to adapt its Pakistan policy.
Nawaz Sharif is seen as a 'disruptive force'
"It's extraordinarily difficult because it has got locked into certain policies and hasn't figured out a way to manoeuvre so that it can come through this transition period and still have co-operative leaders in Pakistan," he argues.
Mr Weinbaum says it is not explicitly stated, but the US would have preferred to have Gen Musharraf staying on as both president and the army chief. "But now, just to have Musharraf as the president is about the best one could hope for."
An unnamed state department official quoted by Time magazine says: "The hope is that Musharraf will continue to influence policy in the war on terror as president."
For that, a potential Musharraf-Benazir alliance is widely seen in Washington to be the safest bet as she is considered closer to the moderate forces in the country.
Mr Markey says Washington is less comfortable with the idea of ex-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif forging an alliance with Gen Musharraf. In any case, Mr Sharif had ruled out that suggestion before trying to return to the country last week.
Could the US abandon President Musharraf altogether?
Teresita Schaffer, a former South Asia specialist at the state department, says: "Musharraf looks like a better bet than either of his civilian counterparts."
Marvin Weinbaum, too, feels the US has very little choice as there is no reason to believe that there is someone out there who can do a better job of meeting US objectives in the "war on terror". Gen Musharraf, he says, represents a "manageable and known quantity".
The other potential problem for the US is how Washington would react should President Musharraf choose to impose martial law. Many believe that failure to strike a working agreement with Benazir Bhutto may prompt him to do so for his own survival.
Would the US still support him?
Daniel Markey says that's a situation the Bush administration doesn't want to find itself in. But in the final analysis, Washington would have to stand by its man.
"While they will be forced to say things that will make the relationship less comfortable and less productive, it will probably still need him because of where Pakistan is located," he says.