ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Vice President Dick Cheney’s unannounced visit to the Pakistani capital on Monday 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.”
Following the visit, Cheney traveled to Afghanistan, where an explosion went off outside the main U.S. military base today, causing an unknown number of casualties but apparently not putting the vice president in danger, officials said.
The blast happened at the first gate outside the base at Bagram. Maj. William Mitchell said it did not appear the explosion was intended as a threat to the vice president, who was “safely inside the base” during the blast.
In his unannounced Pakistan 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. Congress is threatening to cut aid to Pakistan unless it sees more concrete results in combating militants’ cross-border infiltration to Afghanistan.
In a written statement, 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.
For his part, Musharraf hewed to what has become his government’s scripted reply to such concerns: that Pakistan already 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.