ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- Vice President Dick Cheney's unannounced visit to the Pakistani capital yesterday was the latest and most visible signal of renewed U.S. pressure on President Pervez Musharraf to crack down on Islamic militants in Pakistan's lawless tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.
But complex domestic considerations in Pakistan, and a keen awareness on Musharraf's part that the Bush administration sees no palatable alternative to his leadership, diminish the prospect of any dramatic Pakistani move against the militants, diplomats and analysts said.
"There is only so far that he is prepared to go," said Rahul Roy-Chaudhury of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a leading British think tank on security matters. "Some of this is dictated by the [Pakistani] military's view of things, and some by the fact that this is not politically popular in large parts of Pakistan. ... He's not willing to go beyond a certain limit."
In his unannounced stopover, Cheney became the highest-ranking U.S. official of late to press Musharraf to rein in what American officials characterize as a volatile mix of homegrown Pakistani militant groups, Taliban strategists and al-Qaida elements, all operating with an increasing degree of freedom in the tribal zones along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
The issue has been central to U.S.-Pakistan relations since the Sept. 11 attacks, but seldom has the Bush administration been as blunt or as public in its pressure on Musharraf, a key ally in the region. The stepped-up pressure also comes as Congress threatens to cut aid to Pakistan unless it sees more concrete results in combating militants' infiltration into Afghanistan.
Neither Cheney nor Musharraf spoke publicly before or after their meeting at the presidential palace, which lasted more than two hours. They appeared before the cameras for a handshake only.
In a written statement, however, the Pakistani leader's office acknowledged that Musharraf had come under at least indirect criticism from the vice president. Cheney "expressed U.S. apprehensions of [the] regrouping of al-Qaida in the tribal areas and called for concerted efforts in countering the threat," the statement said.
Cheney was accompanied by Steve Kappes, the deputy CIA director, whose presence underscored U.S. concern over intelligence assessments that indicate a deteriorating situation in the tribal areas.
For his part, Musharraf hewed to what has become his government's scripted reply to such concerns: that Pakistan is doing all it can, and that the burden of confronting the Taliban and its allies must be shared by other parties, including the Afghan government and NATO.
The Pakistani leader told Cheney that the international community was "collectively responsible for defeating the scourge of terrorism," adding that "Pakistan has done the maximum," the government statement said.
And in a protest against any move to cut aid to his government, Musharraf decried "proposed discriminatory legislation regarding U.S. aid to Pakistan," according to the Pakistani statement.
The New York Times reported in its editions yesterday that President Bush intended to warn Musharraf that congressional Democrats might seek such cuts in response to the Pakistani leader's perceived reluctance to energetically confront the militant threat in the tribal areas.
In Washington, White House spokesman Tony Snow said, "The Pakistanis remain committed to doing everything possible to fight al-Qaida, but having said that, we also know that there's a lot more that needs to be done."
Several Western diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there was a gap between Western expectations and what Musharraf was in a position to accomplish.
Pakistan has been enduring a spate of suicide bombings that began after a government air raid aimed at Islamic militants in the tribal areas late last year. Some analysts suggested the Pakistani leader risked being blamed if raids trigger a backlash in Pakistani towns and cities.
"If he goes back to a more robust military intervention, the view here will be that he is toeing the American line," said Talat Masood, a retired Pakistani general. "I think it will give rise to a lot of spillover effect, in terms of violence and suicide bombings, against both hard and soft targets."
Laura King writes for the Los Angeles Times.