A senior United States envoy will arrive in Pakistan today for crisis talks with President Pervez Musharraf in a last-gasp effort to resolve the country's political turmoil amid signs the Bush administration is preparing to "ditch" the general and throw its support behind an alternative leader.
John Negroponte, the deputy US secretary of state, will meet not only General Musharraf but also General Ashfaq Kiyani, the deputy head of the armed forces, the man poised to take over the senior military role should General Musharraf – as he has promised he will – take off his uniform and become a civilian leader.
That day was to have been yesterday, the same day that the national assembly's term expired and the current government was dissolved ahead of elections scheduled to take place before the end of the year. But while General Musharraf has said he will take off the uniform by the end of the month and vowed that elections will go ahead, many observers question his intentions as well as the sort of election that could take place with every significant opposition leader imprisoned.
Mr Negroponte's visit had been planned before General Musharraf declared a state of emergency 12 days ago, but its importance has swelled significantly since then. Now he is coming as an emissary of the Bush administration with the toughest of messages, apparently as Washington gives real thought to supporting an alternative leader to the beleaguered general.
"He will be carrying a very strong message [for General Musharraf]. You can expect he will be saying the same things that the US has been saying in public: end the emergency, take off the uniform, hold the elections, free the media and release the prisoners," said a Western diplomat in Islamabad. "I do not think he will be saying it is time to go but he will be saying it is time to change."
While the US has the lever controlling more than $10bn in financial and military aid it has provided to Pakistan since 9/11, perhaps of more significance is the hints it has been dropping – via such high-profile messengers as The New York Times – that it is now seriously considering how it might work with an alternative leader to General Musharraf.
Whether the Bush administration has genuinely decided General Musharraf is a spent force, or if it is simply suggesting as much in an effort to pressure him to end the state of emergency, is unclear. But reports suggest that increasing numbers of people within the US government believe the military leader's days in power are numbered and that Washington should start making contingency plans – including talking to other senior military figures such as General Kiyani. Britain has also identified General Kiyani as a possible successor to General Musharraf.
Meanwhile, with Mr Negroponte due to arrive this evening for a two-day visit, General Musharraf's main rivals began talks to form an alliance against him.
Benazir Bhutto, the head of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) who is still under house arrest in Lahore, suggested setting up a government of national unity to replace the general ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for January. "I am talking to the other opposition parties to find out whether they are in a position to come together," former prime minister told the Associated Press. "We need to see whether we can come up with an interim government of national consensus to whom power can be handed."
In Karachi, supporters of the PPP clashed with police throughout the day. Two young boys and an adult were killed as a result of indiscriminate gunfire loosened off by unidentified protesters, their deaths being the first fatalities since General Musharraf declared a state of emergency. PPP supporters also clashed with police in the north-western city of Peshawar. Four people were detained including two provincial leaders.
In Lahore, Ms Bhutto was visited by a US diplomat who was permitted to cross the barricades and barbed wire that surround the house in which she has been detained. "He came to find out whether I could work with General Musharraf, and I told him that it was very difficult to work with someone who instead of taking us toward democracy took us back toward military dictatorship," she said.