ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - When Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte visited Pakistan last weekend, he met once with President Pervez Musharraf, for two hours. But before he left town, he held three meetings with a lesser-known figure: General Ashfaq Kiyani, the deputy army chief.
The two shared a Saturday night dinner.
The attention paid to Kiyani has affirmed speculation here that he will soon be chosen as Musharraf's successor as head of the army, and, as such, will be a vital ally for the Bush administration during a time of crisis.
"Use your influence. You can help save Pakistan," Negroponte told Kiyani during the visit, according to a Western diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Musharraf has repeatedly said he will step down from his army post. It remains unclear when he will do so. But if Kiyani is named his successor, he will command Pakistan's 600,000 troops and lead the country's most important institution.
Power in Pakistan flows from the uniform, as a popular saying here goes. Half of the country's rulers have been sons of the military.
"To understand the power of Pakistan, you have to understand that it's the military that matters. And they are kingmakers here," said Shireen Mazari of the Institute of Strategic Studies in Islamabad.
Public support for Musharraf, who came to power after a 1999 coup, has never been as low as it is now, following his decision Nov. 3 to declare emergency rule, fire several Supreme Court justices, and crack down on the news media.
Yesterday, Musharraf's government released more than 3,000 political prisoners who had been held under emergency rule, many of them lawyers.
But the Interior Ministry said 2,000 people remain detained. And in Lahore, a group of lawyers was briefly released and then arrested again.
Meanwhile, police arrested 150 journalists in the southern city of Karachi, where violence broke out after police sprayed tear gas, used batons to beat protesters, and chased them through the streets. Several journalists were shown on television injured.
Musharraf yesterday flew to Saudi Arabia amid reports that he might be meeting with Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister who was ousted in the 1999 coup.
With the political uncertainty continuing in Pakistan, analysts say Kiyani is key to Musharraf's future.
Few say Kiyani would attempt a coup because, for now at least, top military leaders would not support it. And Kiyani, 55, has his own reasons not to press Musharraf to lift emergency rule or resign as president.
"He won't risk his own job since time is on his side," said Talat Masood, a former Pakistani general who is now a political analyst.
"They have to cultivate him and make sure they get along well with each other," he said.
"Because if, down the road, the army feels their reputation is sinking along with Musharraf, well, that is when you have seen a change of power in Pakistan throughout history."
Before being the armed forces' No. 2, the general was head of the Inter-Services Intelligence, Pakistan's spy agency, where he worked closely with senior CIA and Pentagon officials.
He was given that post after investigating two assassination attempts against Musharraf in 2003, an appointment seen as a reward.
Kiyani has working-class roots, having been raised in farming communities in the Punjab, sometimes called the country's "martial belt" because many teenage boys from the province enter the military, lacking other economic opportunities. He was educated at the US Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.