ISLAMABAD (Reuters) -Vice President Dick Cheney made an unannounced visit to Pakistan on Monday to press President Pervez Musharraf for help in combating a new Taliban offensive in Afghanistan and a resurgent al Qaeda.
Cheney was meeting with Musharraf at the presidential palace in Islamabad, an official told reporters traveling with the vice president. He arrived under tight security after spending the night in Oman.
The United States is bolstering its troop presence in Afghanistan by 3,200 to help repel fierce spring fighting anticipated by the United States and NATO after the bloodiest year there since the Taliban was ousted by U.S.-led forces in 2001.
The New York Times reported on Monday that President George W. Bush had decided to send an unusually tough message to Musharraf, warning him that the newly elected Democratic U.S. Congress could cut aid unless his forces were far more aggressive in hunting down operatives with al Qaeda.
Taliban forces and elements of al Qaeda, blamed for the September 11 attacks on the United States, are suspected of operating from the remote mountainous border area between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The United States has about 27,000 troops in Afghanistan, of which about 15,000 are in the NATO force and the rest on missions ranging from counter-terrorism to training.
Cheney’s stop was added to an Asia trip during which he visited Japan and Australia, two staunch U.S. allies that have lent their support in Afghanistan and in the increasingly unpopular Iraq war.
Under Musharraf, Pakistan became a key ally in Washington’s war on terror after the September 11 attacks by withdrawing its support for the Taliban government, sharing intelligence with U.S. officials and rounding up suspected Islamic militants.
Although Bush publicly praises Musharraf’s support on counter-terrorism, U.S. officials have voiced frustration over Taliban sanctuaries on the Pakistani side of the porous border with Afghanistan.
A general who came to power in a military coup more than seven years ago, Musharraf gets cut a lot of slack, because his
allies see no other Pakistani leader capable of delivering as much as he has already done in terms snuffing out al Qaeda.
“The bottom line is not to do anything to undermine the president,” Marvin Weinbaum, an expert on Afghan and Pakistani affairs at Washington’s Middle East Institute, remarked at a seminar in Islamabad earlier this month on the U.S. approach to relations with Pakistan’s military strongman.
With elections due in Pakistan later this year, and U.S. pressure building on neighboring Iran over its nuclear program, Washington is likely to remain careful of saying anything publicly that could hurt Musharraf domestically.
Experts say the Taliban has a virtual mini-state in northern Pakistan, using a recent peace deal with Islamabad to expand suicide-bomber training and fortifying its alliance with al Qaeda.
“It’s clearly unacceptable the amount of difficulty being created for our troops and for NATO in Afghanistan by the lack of Pakistani resolve with the Taliban,” Republican Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana told a Senate hearing.
Bush has been criticized for pursuing war in Iraq at the expense of Afghanistan, a charge the administration denies.
His new push in Afghanistan has solid support in Congress, unlike his plan to send another 21,500 U.S. troops to Iraq, which has drawn ferocious opposition from Democrats.