ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Aug. 22, 2008 -- In a crucible of violence, a young and vulnerable Pakistani government is trying to turn President Pervez Musharraf's resignation into a stable democracy in which civilians control the military and provide economic stability.
The fractious coalition represents the third attempt in Paksitan's 62-year history to replace a military rule with a civilian government, and never before have politicians proved they can be less corrupt and more effective than generals.
But this government faces not only unprecedented inflation (nearly 25 percent) and tumultuous politics but also a resurgent Taliban.
On Thursday and Friday, at least four suicide bombers targeted the military, including two that successfully pierced security at the country's largest ammunition factory, to kill at least 67 people.
"It is an extremely difficult situation. It is a make-or-break situation for Pakistan," says Rasul Bakhsh Rais, a political science professor at the Lahore University of Management Studies. "This is about Pakistan's ability to survive as a state."
Pervez Musharraf became unpopular in part because he was seen as doing the United States' bidding in the volatile Northwest Frontier province, where he launched a series of offensives against militants who use the area as a base to attack targets in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
But the current coalition government has been forced to follow many of the same tactics. At first, it made peace with the militants, but the Frontier Corps paramilitary forces continued to be targeted, and the provincial government said it had no choice but to confront an increasingly powerful Taliban.
As the prime minister's interior adviser put it this week, either the country can hand itself over to the Taliban, or the military can continue to fight. "The war against terrorism is our own war, and it will continue until its logical end," Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilan told reporters this week.
Taliban spokesmen promised to attack the heart of Pakistani authority in retaliation, and over the last few weeks they have proved that, most notably in the dual suicide bombings Thursday inside the Wah Containment, where the country's largest ammunition factory resides.
"They can penetrate anywhere now. That is what they're trying to prove," says retired Gen. Talat Masood, a former secretary of defense and the longest-running chairman of the ammunition factory. He says it was once "the safest and most secure place." But today, the Taliban are "intensifying their attacks, and the frequency is also increasing, and they're becoming sophisticated."
The United States is worried that the coalition government, which is preoccupied with internal battles and choosing a president, can't withstand internal pressures and will give up the fight against the militants.
It will be even harder to get whatever civilians are in place in Islamabad to focus on terrorism, to focus on insurgency, when they're so focused either on political squabbling or on the question of who will govern Pakistan, says Daniel Markey, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
So who are the leading players in the post-Musharraf Pakistan? Here's a handy cheat sheet.
Asif Ali Zardari, co-chairman, Pakistan People's Party
The man who would be president. Zardari is Benazir Bhutto's widower and the head of the country's most popular political party, which she led and her father created. He was once called "Mister 10 percent," accused of skimming off the top of every deal he touched. Today he would be in charge of the country's third attempt to transition from military to civilian leadership.
If he becomes president, as many analysts predict, "it would be an executive presidency," as Rais put it. The prime minster, officially the head of the government, would not hold significant power. Zardari would need to insulate himself constitutionally from judges throwing out the National Reconciliation Order, which gave Zardari amnesty from corruption charges late last year.
Nawaz Sharif, Chairman, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz
The head of the country's second-largest party, he was the driving force behind the move to remove Musharraf from power. Sharif was on his second tour as prime minister when Musharraf took power in a 1999 coup.
His party has repeatedly threatened to leave the coalition government if the PPP does not agree to reinstate the 60 judges who Musharraf fired late last year. His support of Zardari depends on an agreement on the judges.
"He's already indicated to Zardari, 'We will support you," says Rais. "His only condition would be that the judiciary is restored."
If Sharif chooses to leave the coalition, the PPP could still lead a coalition without the PML-N.
General Ashfaq Kiyani, Chief of Staff, Pakistani Army
The military is still the most influential and powerful institution in the country, and Kiyani is by some measure the most influential and powerful man in the country. But unlike Musharraf, who installed him in this post last year, Kiyani is trying to stay out of politics and wants the politicians to take ownership of the government.
He has made 2008 "the year of the soldier," an attempt to improve Pakistanis' opinions of the military, opinions that have dropped as Musharraf blurred the line between army and government. And it is an attempt to refocus the military itself on an incredibly difficult problem: rooting out the Taliban, so long as that's what it is asked to do.
"The military realizes its own limitations," Masood says. "Because of the rise of militancy within Pakistan, and at the same time the strong alienation of the people of Pakistan against the military. This is why they're even prepared to tolerate a weak civilian dispensation, provided they feel eventually, it will start delivering."
Last year was the most violent in Pakistan's history since its bloody partition from India in 1947. Fifty-six bombings killed more than 600 people, most notably, Benazir Bhutto. It was after the military's operation against radical, religious students in Islamabad when the Tehrik-e-Taliban -- the Movement of Pakistani Taliban -- launched a violent campaign under the leadership of a militant from Waziristan named Baitullah Mehsud.
A wave of attacks -- Pakistan's first repeated use of suicide bombings -- targeted police, the military and politicians. The attacks largely stopped when the current government signed peace deals with various factions, but in the last few months the Taliban has resumed its attacks on Frontier Corps soldiers, and as the military has responded, the suicide bombings have returned.
The Taliban today "poses a greater threat to U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan than at any time in the last seven years," Bruce Reidel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former CIA officer, wrote this week. "Ironically, Pakistan is the logistical hub for both the Taliban which operates from safe havens in Pakistan, and NATO which gets more than 80 percent of its supplies via the Pakistani port of Karachi."
The U.S. and Afghanistan both believe the stronger the Taliban in Pakistan are, the more U.S. soldiers will die.
"The fight against terrorism is not in Afghanistan, and we will not be secure and safe … unless Afghanistan and the international community address the question of sanctuaries in Pakistan and the terrorist training camps there," Afghan President Hamid Karzai said this week.
Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, former Supreme Court Chief Justice
The beginning of the end for President Pervez Musharraf was when he fired Chaudhry last spring. In response, the general, who had a nearly 70 percent approval rating, suddenly found protestors outside his door. A "lawyer's movement" was hatched, giving many people in Paksitan the confidence to speak out against Musharraf.
"The movement started with a single judge," Rais says.
Today, he is at the center of the power politics between Zardari and Sharif. Sharif insists that all the deposed judges need to be reinstated, especially Chaudhry.
Zardari fears that if Chaudhry is reinstated he might declare that the National Reconciliation Order, which provided him immunity from prosecution, was unconstitutional.
Asfandyar Wali and Maulana Fazlur Rehman
President, Awami National Party and Chairman, Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-F political party
These two senior politicians are the buffer between Zardari and Sharif. If Sharif remains in the coalition and the judges are restored, Pakistanis will have these two men to thank.
Wali's party, a national Pashtun party, controls the Northwest Frontier province. He is a favorite of the United States and oversees the areas of Pakistan in which the United States is most interested.
Rehman's party used to run the Northwest Frontier, and still holds sway the country's religious parties.
Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani
Officially, the most powerful man in government. But much of the power rests with Zardari himself already. And if Zardari becomes President, Gilani "would largely be a figurehead," Rais says.