WASHINGTON -- For months, the Bush administration's hopes for stability in Pakistan rested on the rising influence of Benazir Bhutto. Her death Thursday shattered those hopes and threatened to paralyze U.S. priorities there: fighting terrorism, ensuring the safety of Pakistan's nuclear weapons and preventing regional chaos.
The administration had a huge stake in the pro-Western former prime minister. U.S. officials were banking heavily that Bhutto's party would win enough seats in upcoming elections to become an effective force in the government again. In Pakistan, her death leaves the party in disarray and the elections themselves in doubt. For the White House, it leaves a void that will take time and work to fill.
The assassination dealt a blow to an even closer U.S. ally, President Pervez Musharraf, who now may lose the electoral blessing he needs to restore his sagging credibility and legitimacy. Worse, many Pakistanis hold the president and those around him responsible for the assassination, if only because they failed to prevent it.
The setback comes at an especially bad time for the United States, with Islamic militants resurgent in neighboring Afghanistan and focusing more intently on attacking Pakistan itself. The United States has been spending about $1 billion a year in Pakistan.
"A bad day for Pakistan; a bad day for the United States," said Daniel Markey of the Council on Foreign Relations, who was a senior State Department official until earlier this year. "We're going to be paying a price for it for a while."
U.S. officials said their foremost concern was the possibility of civil upheaval. One official said that the greatest risk was that violence would prove too much even for the Pakistani army, which plays a pivotal role in keeping the country together. Until last month, Musharraf served as military chief of staff, a position he renounced only under intense pressure from domestic and foreign critics.
With Bhutto dead and hopes for an alliance between her and Musharraf now gone, U.S. officials must decide which Pakistani leaders can help wage war on Islamic militants and stabilize a nuclear-armed country.
Even Musharraf has failed to show results on many fronts. For instance, Osama bin Laden, who many believe has found shelter in Pakistan, is still at large. And some U.S. military intelligence officials believe that a significant portion of the billions of dollars in U.S. aid since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks has not been spent on the "war on terror."
Now, Musharraf's power appears to be in decline, leaving U.S. officials to face the question of whether to try to repair their badly damaged relationship with former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who unquestionably stands to gains leverage in the fractured political system.
Although Sharif has often denounced the United States, he is considered a pragmatic if nationalistic politician by those at home. Even so, the White House would have to overcome the doubts of many administration insiders, who consider him dangerous and unreliable, before seeking a rapprochement.
Peter Rodman, who was the top international security affairs official at the Pentagon until last month, said Sharif is "a wild card and not to be trusted."
Rodman said it was unlikely that a deal with Sharif would provide the same benefits as a deal with Bhutto.
Nevertheless, U.S. officials are "reaching out to a wide range" of Pakistani political figures, said one senior U.S. official, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the situation.
Bhutto's assassination revived questions about whether the administration has focused too much of its support on top allies, such as Musharraf and Bhutto, rather than spreading its more broadly through the Pakistani government and civil society.
"If you want to be a friend to the nation, you may have to do a little better job of being somewhat more balanced with respect to the various legitimate political actors," said John Schlosser, a former State Department official who is now a vice president of Stonebridge International, a consulting firm. "We have over-personalized our relationship with Pakistan; we need to depersonalize it."
The administration insisted that Bhutto's assassination brought no immediate policy changes. But U.S. officials signaled flexibility Thursday on one of their top goals, parliamentary elections scheduled for Jan. 8.
Publicly, the administration said Bhutto's death should not be allowed to force a delay. But privately, officials said they would accept a postponement as long as the Musharraf government did not use the assassination to cancel its promised return to more democratic governance.
Markey, the former State Department official, predicted that the administration "will recognize the situation has gotten a great deal messier and won't push too hard, at least in the medium term, as long as it looks like the elections are not indefinitely delayed."
But officials said Washington would not favor a return by Musharraf to the emergency rule that he ended only this month. Although U.S. officials are worried about violence, they do not believe that added presidential powers are needed to suppress disorder.
And emergency rule likely would compound public unhappiness with Musharraf, who lifted emergency rule earlier this month but continues to detain the country's deposed chief justice and other senior judges, among other measures. Arif Rafiq, an analyst at Pakistan Policy Blog, said Musharraf is likely to face new skepticism and sharp public scrutiny as his government launches its investigation of how Bhutto was assassinated.
As heavy a blow as it was to U.S. interests, Bhutto's death will be even more damaging if it comes to be widely seen in Pakistan as a demonstration that militant groups can strike at the heart of the government with impunity.
C. Christine Fair, a former U.S. official now at Rand Corp., said it would be a "silver lining" if the attack caused Pakistan's security establishment to reconsider a long-standing reliance on militant groups. Many Musharraf critics believe that despite his persistent denials, officials in Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency support the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan as well as at least some of its allies.
But Fair added: "That's a low-probability event."
Times staff writers Doyle McManus and Peter Spiegel in Washington and James Gerstenzang in Crawford, Texas, contributed to this report.