Despite pledges by Pakistan's new leader to improve relations with the West, US officials are hesitant to throw their support behind history's first military government in control of a nuclear arsenal.
Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who last week overthrew Pakistan's democratically elected government, has said all the right things in public: that he will ease tension with India, that he will limit nuclear proliferation, and that he will restore democracy to the country of 135 million.
Nevertheless, officials here remain concerned about the threat of nuclear confrontation under General Musharraf - and the possibility that Pakistan could fall in step with anti-American neighbors Iran and Afghanistan.
Musharraf, to the dismay of some observers, is a career soldier and by his own admission, "not a political or constitutional expert."
"There are signs that military leaders are more likely to use nuclear weapons than [are] civilian leaders," says Steven David, a professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. "In a crisis situation, they may strike if they feel they will be preempted."
While the military has always controlled Pakistan's nuclear arsenal, Musharraf will now have the final say in crucial matters of state that could lead to nuclear confrontation. He will rule through a six-member National Security Council and be advised by experts.
Musharraf's time line
Another US concern is that Musharraf didn't specify when he would install democracy, despite the urgings of US officials who recently met with him.
"A lot of what he said was quite good," President Clinton said this week about an Oct. 18 speech by Musharraf. "But I was disappointed there was no commitment to a timetable to move toward democracy, and I hope that will be forthcoming."
Having already imposed sanctions in 1990 and last year for Pakistan's testing of nuclear weapons, the US has limited economic leverage. Nevertheless, the White House said it will block some remaining aid.
While US officials have not supported Musharraf, they also have not publicly condemned him - because it is too early to know what kind of leader he will be, because he is for the moment popular in Pakistan, and because he has acted with moderation during his first week of rule, analysts say.
"We certainly don't approve of the move he's made," says an administration official. "But he's what we got now, and he's making the right noises."
Musharraf, however, is best known as the general who earlier this year led Pakistan's conflict against India in the disputed territory of Kashmir. The US and other world powers strongly condemned the action. Pakistan did not withdraw from Kashmir until, at the urging of the US, ousted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif ordered a halt to the operation. Musharraf was said to have been humiliated by the episode - and inspired to move against Mr. Sharif. The defeat in Kashmir was just one in a string of losses for Pakistan, a country that has been left out of the global economy and has fallen far behind its rival, India.
With or without Musharraf, the US considers Pakistan a threat to global security. "Pakistan is a loser," says Leon Hadar, a south Asia expert at the Cato Institute here. "And when a loser has nuclear weapons, it's dangerous."
Although US relations with Pakistan have been strained recently, the country remains a vital foothold is south Asia. It is seen as a front line in the fight to prevent the spread of the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban movement, which rules Afghanistan and is among America's top enemies.
Another US enemy, Iran, has been courting Pakistan, which has the same predominant Sunni Muslim religion. Iran has said it would support Pakistan if it were engaged in an armed conflict.
Pakistan a 'swing' country
Finally, the US considers Pakistan a swing country that could end up on America's side or on China's. "If Pakistan sees that the US is becoming a less reliable ally, they could get closer with China," says Mr. Hadar.
According to Hadar, the strategic importance of Pakistan is one reason the US has been relatively reserved - at least publicly - in its judgment of Musharraf.
Also, US officials have never been particularly fond of his predecessor, Mr. Sharif, who some accuse of mismanaging Pakistan.
Shireen Hunter, director of Islamic Studies at the Center of Strategic and International Studies here, says one positive outcome of the coup may be an initial period of calm - due to the installation of military rule.
So far Pakistanis have supported Musharraf, who has already taken aggressive steps to root out corruption.
But, says Ms. Hunter, "this is not a positive development because it shows that parliamentary democracy failed in Pakistan." Almost all of the US's diplomatic conflicts this century have been with nondemocratic countries.
Deepa Ollapally, an analyst at the Washington-based Institute for Peace, says the biggest problem with Musharraf is that he is a soldier and may be likely to settle confrontations through military force, not diplomacy.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society