WASHINGTON (AP) — Just months ago, the United States publicly championed Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf as an "indispensable" ally.
Now, officials barely mention the man the Bush administration once promoted as essential to holding together a nuclear-armed country deemed crucial to the U.S.-led fight against extremists in South Asia.
The new tone comes as the United States works to gain the favor of Pakistani opposition forces that won big in last month's parliamentary elections and as Musharraf's grip on power weakens. The newly empowered politicians are promising to reinstate fired judges who had questioned the legality of Musharraf's continuing in office.
The United States says it still intends to work with the former army chief, whom Pakistani lawmakers elected to a five-year presidential term in October. But the Bush administration appears to be shifting from making support for Musharraf the core of its Pakistan policy, which many U.S. lawmakers and Pakistani opposition leaders have long wanted.
Robert Hathaway, director of the Woodrow Wilson Center's Asia program, said Bush officials will not abandon Musharraf, "but clearly they have to, in rather dramatic fashion, alter what had been their previous practice of putting all of the American eggs in a Musharraf basket."
Pakistan's "new realities," Hathaway said, "dictate that they deal with Islamabad on a much broader basis if they wish to have any sort of influence in Pakistan."
In Feb. 18 parliamentary elections, the parties of slain opposition leader Benazir Bhutto and another former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, finished first and second. The Pakistan Muslim League-Q, a party loyal to Musharraf, lost heavily.
The turnaround for Musharraf, who seized power in a 1999 coup, followed months of angry criticism at his crackdown late last year on the opposition, judiciary and media. In November, he declared a state of emergency and purged the Supreme Court before it could rule on the disputed legality of his presidential re-election.
Richard Boucher, assistant secretary of state for South Asia, said this week that the United States was reaching out to the opposition. "We have talked to all the parties, telling them all, `We will work with whoever emerges as the leadership,'" he said.
The U.S. does not seem as eager to promote Musharraf as it once was.
Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte told lawmakers late last month that "Pakistan has been indispensable" to the fight against extremists, a marked change from his comments in November that Musharraf himself was the indispensable key to the effort.
This week, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack avoided taking a position on the possible restoration of the judges.
Asked if the United States was reaching out to politicians to express opposition to bringing back the judges, McCormack said, "No."
"We're not in the business of interpreting their laws or their constitution for them," he told reporters. "We don't have a vote in this, nor should we."
The United States does, however, have a stake in Pakistan's success as a moderate Islamic state. Washington has pumped about $10 billion in aid into Pakistan since Musharraf sided with the United States in the drive to topple the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan and hunt down terrorists after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Farhana Ali, an analyst at the Rand Corp. think tank, said there is a "hesitancy within the administration to completely let go of Musharraf."
She added that the Bush administration acknowledges "that we need Pakistan's support. Therefore, it's wise for us to accept whoever is going to take the throne."