Washington, Dec. 27: With Benazir Bhuttos assassination, it no longer matters if General Pervez Musharraf remains Pakistans President.
With the huge political vacuum created by the passing away of Pakistans tallest leader, power has effectively passed on to General Ashfaq Pervez Kiani, who can no longer remain in the shadow of the man whom he succeeded as the chief of army staff only a few weeks ago.
All of Musharrafs antics since September 11, 2001, have had the single purpose of perpetuating his rule in Pakistan.
On Thursday, a greater institutional responsibility fell on Kianis shoulders: that of preserving the armys supreme role in Pakistans politics as that countrys only remaining institution with any degree of stability.
Every corps commander in Pakistan will have one thought uppermost in his mind tonight. How could this assassination have happened in Rawalpindi, the seat of the Pakistani armys General Headquarters (GHQ), the sanctum sanctorum of the Pakistani establishment for at least half a century?
In November, Benazir wanted to hold a rally in Rawalpindi similar to the one at which she met her tragic end today.
But Benazir was persuaded by the army brass to abandon the idea.
That persuasion was a reflection of the armys determination to insulate its GHQ from the tumult of Pakistani politics and retain its image as the countrys ultimate stabilising force.
Benazirs acquiescence in that effort reflected her new willingness to accommodate the army in her political calculations.
Kiani will attempt in the coming weeks to restore that balance in the body politic of Pakistan. But he can only do that now, if at all, by distancing himself from Musharraf.
It is the supreme irony of Pakistan that every President — or Prime Minister — who has appointed a new chief of army staff has miscalculated in his choice.
Zulfikar Ali Bhutto chose General Zia-ul Haq because he thought Zia was a mouse among the lions and would pose no threat to him.
Zia literally devoured Bhutto, ousting him from power and then executing him.
Nawaz Sharif made the same mistake in choosing Musharraf to head the GHQ. Sharif was overthrown, but he escaped with his life, thanks to the US President and the king of Saudi Arabia.
In the coming months — earlier, if Musharrafs stars are crossed — it will be the incumbent Presidents turn to regret his choice.
Kiani is unique as the army chief: he is the only general who headed the scheming, conspiratorial, secretive Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to have risen to the very top of the armys ladder.
He will want to retain the confidence of the ISI, with its fingers in multiple pies, and preserve the armys overarching role within the Pakistani state at the same time.
That now requires considerable tight-rope walking, for which Musharraf is a liability.
When Kiani and Musharraf looked each other in the eye at the emotional ceremony at which the army chiefs baton changed hands a few weeks ago, they would have recognised the value of their compact.
Kiani could never have hoped for a better President, one from his own ranks who would indulge the army and vice versa.
That compact made it irrelevant who became Prime Minister after the January 8 election.
With Benazir gone, that compact lies in ruins. And Musharraf does not have the political capital to ressurect or refashion it any more.
Washington is one capital where this new weakness in Islamabad is unmistakably recognised.
On Thursday morning when US President George W. Bush, on holiday at his ranch at Crawford was alerted to the developments in Pakistan, the Americans were initially at a loss.
White House spokesman Scott Stanzel could not even bring himself to name Benazir lest it undermine(d) reconciliation — as the state department described todays events at the same time — because Benazirs assassination has abruptly ended the version of democracy carefully choreographed in London and Washington with the dead Peoples Party leader as a key player.
Nawaz Sharif, the only other tall leader in Pakistan,rejected the idea of reconciliation and formation of a national government even before Benazirs body was moved from the hospital.
Kiani may yet be able to make Sharif change his mind but only if Musharraf leaves the political scene for good.
Pakistans army has normally stepped aside when the streets are in flames. That was how Zulifqar Ali Bhutto assumed power. His daughter similarly came to power when the army gave way after Zias death.
Kiani may choose to repeat history by brokering yet another compromise in Pakistans chequered politics that retains the quiet dominance of the army GHQ over the country.
As the late Benazirs military secretary in 1988, who met her in Dubai and London during her exile, he has enough strings to pull within her Peoples Party,which is bereft of a second rung leadership. That makes Kiani the man to watch in the weeks and months to come.