After reportedly prevailing on Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf to avoid declaring an internal emergency, the United States is now working on convincing him that his best bet to retain power, in the face of growing domestic unrest, is to share it with former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
The formulation calls for Musharraf to install Bhutto as prime minister while he remains president.
Reporting the moves the US is making in the background, the New York Times says US officials believe that this is the only way he can remain in power - and his continuance in office is crucial to the US theory that only Musharraf at the helm can keep Pakistan, and its nuclear arsenal, from falling into the hands of fundamental elements.
Musharraf and Bhutto reportedly met in Abu Dhabi July 27, though neither has confirmed the meeting. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is believed to have discussed the formulation, when she spoke to Musharraf late night last week to warn him against imposing an internal emergency.
The US, according to the report, is attempting to strike a delicate balance. On the one hand, they want Musharraf to share power in order to bring at least a semblance of democracy to Pakistan, which has been run by the general since his coup against then Prime Minister Nawaz Shariff in 1999.
However, they also believe that if Musharraf's power is diluted, it could not only endanger Pakistan's nuclear arsenal, but also dilute US strikes against al Qaeda.
A tangential fear among US administration officials is that the return of Bhutto could spark a revival of Pakistani nationalism, and calls for the country to distance itself from the US.
Musharraf was Bhutto's chief of military operations during her tenure as prime minister. Since then, she has in public statements demanded that he put aside his uniform, blamed him for Pakistan's confrontations with India and with fostering and even promoting terrorist groups, while Musharraf has repeatedly said he will not allow Bhutto to return to Pakistan before the upcoming elections.
US officials told the NYT that the first step towards this eventual formulation could come in the form of an announcement by Musharraf that he will allow open parliamentary elections next month.
Straw polls indicate that if such an election were held, Bhutto's party will likely secure the most votes.
This in turn paves the way for Bhutto to become prime minister, though an existing law prohibits former prime ministers from coming back for another innings.
Musharraf as president could over-write that law and permit Bhutto's taking up the office; Bhutto could in turn support Musharraf's candidature in the presidential elections to follow.
While the formulation seems pat, it will not be easy to pull off. The US, the NYT points out, has to tread very delicately to avoid giving the impression that it is the puppeteer pulling Pakistan's strings. Further, members of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League are reportedly furious that Musharraf, after nine years spent attacking Bhutto, will now consider siding with her to retain power.
Bhutto told the NYT that an alliance with Musharraf could hurt her politically. `We want to avoid a situation where we are seen as bailing out an unpopular military dictatorship,' the NYT quotes Bhutto as saying.
She also told the NYT that while her party was in discussions with Musharraf, the pace of progress had been painfully slow, and that the general had made promises he hasn't kept.
`When we are doing this for a level playing field, when we're doing this for a higher cause, which is the restoration of the people's right to elect a government of their choice, that should translate into tangible measures,' Bhutto is quoted as saying.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack in a briefing has however shied away from details of the back-channel efforts. `We have met with all parties, and have expressed our support for open and fair elections. We have encouraged the parties to strengthen the moderate center of Pakistani politics in order to better deal with the problems of extremism,' the NYT quotes Rice's spokesperson as saying.