The White House signaled its growing impatience with Pakistan's failure to crack down on Islamic extremists, dispatching Vice President Cheney for an unannounced visit yesterday to pressure President Pervez Musharraf to do more against a resurgent Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters.
After visits to Japan and Australia last week, Cheney stopped off in Islamabad for consultations with Musharraf before flying on to Bagram air base in Afghanistan. His four-hour presence in Pakistan, kept secret until he left the country, was perhaps the strongest indication of administration concern over the presence of radical Islamic fighters in the unruly border area between the two South Asian countries.
While Iraq continues to consume the administration's attention, U.S. officials are increasingly worried that the Taliban is making a comeback in Afghanistan, using parts of Pakistan to stage cross-border raids and undermine the authority of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Officials are also concerned that al-Qaeda is more active in Pakistani tribal areas close to the border and that Musharraf has been insufficiently aggressive about taking action -- despite promises to President Bush and other senior officials that he would address the situation.
"We don't want Afghanistan to return to being -- nor the border provinces in Pakistan to become -- safe havens for al-Qaeda, where they can plan attacks on the United States and other Western countries," said a senior administration official who discussed Cheney's mission on the condition of anonymity.
Administration officials declined to offer many details of the vice president's trip, which has been in the works for several weeks, but privately officials have said they would like to see Musharraf do more.
The administration is also under new pressure on Capitol Hill, where Democrats have pushed through legislation in the House that would end U.S. military assistance to Islamabad unless Bush certifies that the Pakistani government is making all possible efforts to curtail Taliban activity in Pakistan. The president has proposed $785 million in assistance to Pakistan next year, including $300 million in military aid.
While the fate of such legislation in the Senate is uncertain, administration officials are using the prospect of congressional intervention as leverage to encourage Islamabad to crack down on militants. Musharraf has deployed tens of thousands of troops to the border area and has vowed action against terrorists, but his hold on power also depends on the support of military and intelligence officials more sympathetic to Islamic extremists.
"Cheney doesn't go someplace unless it's very serious," said Barnett R. Rubin, a New York University scholar of South Asia who has been critical of the Musharraf government. "The government of Pakistan is paralyzed, and Cheney is there to give them a shove."
Mahmud Ali Durrani, Pakistan's ambassador to the United States, said Cheney and Musharraf had "a pleasant meeting." Durrani rejected the idea that the vice president came down hard on Pakistan's counterterrorism record.
"They looked at ways and means that the upcoming spring Taliban offensive can be defeated, and they came to some conclusions," Durrani said. "They agreed on the need to work jointly."
Durrani said that a representative from Pakistan's intelligence service was present to meet with counterparts from the CIA and that any intelligence the United States offered would be taken seriously. "Pakistan has always said, 'If you know something, tell us,' " he said. "If you tell us, we take action. The perception that Pakistan is staying back and ignoring things, that's not right."
Britain announced yesterday it is sending 1,400 more troops to Afghanistan, where NATO has placed about 33,000 soldiers to help Karzai's government secure the country. The Bush administration recently announced that it is sending an additional 3,200 U.S. troops to help blunt the Taliban's expected spring offensive.
Cheney was accompanied on his trip to Islamabad by Stephen R. Kappes, deputy director of the CIA and a Middle East expert who has served in Pakistan. Intelligence officials said Kappes's presence was a sign of U.S. interest in increasing intelligence operations with Pakistan. They said there are indications that the al-Qaeda leadership, though moving constantly, has resumed training of outsiders in areas of Pakistan, though it is nowhere near the extent that occurred in Afghanistan under the Taliban.
Afghan officials have long accused Pakistan of feeding the Taliban insurgency. Musharraf's government, many Afghan officials believe, has either looked the other way or covertly supported the Taliban's cause as a way to capture U.S. aid, gaining strategic leverage in Pakistan's competition with India and undermining Karzai's government in Kabul.
Musharraf and Karzai, both U.S. allies, have a stormy relationship, with deep mistrust on both sides. Cheney was supposed to meet with Karzai in Afghanistan yesterday, but the meeting was postponed, the vice president's office said.
[An explosion outside Bagram, the main U.S. military base in Afghanistan, killed 19 people and wounded 11 on Tuesday during a visit by Vice President Dick Cheney, though the vice president was apparently not in danger, the Associated Press reported, citing officials.]