||WASHINGTON: Vice President Dick Cheney made an unannounced trip to Pakistan on Monday to deliver what officials in Washington described as an unusually tough message to General Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan, warning him that the new Democratic Congress could cut aid to his country unless his forces become far more aggressive in hunting down operatives of Al Qaeda.
Cheney's trip was shrouded in secrecy, and he was on the ground for only a few hours, sharing a private lunch with the Pakistani leader at his palace. Cheney traveled with the deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Steve Kappes, an indication that the conversations probably included discussion of American contentions that Qaeda camps have been reconstituted along the border of Afghanistan.
The decision to send Cheney secretly to Pakistan came after the White House concluded that Musharraf was failing to live up to commitments he made to President George W. Bush during a visit to Washington in September.
Musharraf insisted then, both in private and public, that a peace deal he had struck with tribal leaders in one of the country's most lawless border areas would not diminish the hunt for the leaders of Al Qaeda and the Taliban.
But American intelligence officials have concluded that the terrorist infrastructure is being rebuilt and that while Pakistan has attacked some camps, its overall effort has flagged.
"He's made a number of assurances over the past few months, but the bottom line is that what they are doing now is not working," a senior official who deals often with South Asian issues said late last week. "The message we're sending to him now is that the only thing that matters is results."
Reuters reported from Islamabad that a Pakistani official, whom it did not name, said that Cheney had pressed for more action. "He asked President Musharraf that Pakistan should do more," the official said, giving no specifics.
The vice president's office asked news organizations that knew of Cheney's upcoming trip, and the small number of reporters traveling with him, to withhold any mention of his travels until after he had left the country. That request went far beyond the usual precautions as American officials travel into and out of Pakistan. Bush's visit there last year was announced in advance, and a recent trip by Defense Secretary Robert Gates was announced after he had landed in the country.
It was unclear whether the request reflected Cheney's well-known penchant for secrecy â€” he said nothing in public during his visit â€” or an increasing unease by the Secret Service about how freely Qaeda and Taliban operatives are moving around Pakistan. There have long been doubts about the loyalties of some members of Musharraf's intelligence service and assassination attempts against him have been linked to Al Qaeda.
Democrats, who took control of Congress last month, have urged the White House to put greater pressure on Pakistan because of statements from U.S. commanders that units based in Pakistan that are linked to the Taliban are increasing their attacks into Afghanistan.
For the time being, officials say, the White House has ruled out unilateral strikes against the training camps that American spy satellites are monitoring in North Waziristan, in Pakistan's tribal areas on the Afghan border. The fear is that such strikes would result in what one administration official referred to as a "shock to the stability" of Musharraf's government.
Musharraf, a savvy survivor in the brutal world of Pakistani politics, knows that the administration is hesitant to push him too far. If his government collapses, it is not clear who would succeed him or gain control over Pakistan's nuclear weapons.
But the spread of Al Qaeda in the tribal areas threatens to undermine a central element of Bush's argument that he is succeeding in the administration's effort to curb terrorism. The bomb plot disrupted in Britain last summer, involving plans to hijack airplanes, has been linked by British and American intelligence agencies to camps in the Pakistan-Afghan border areas.
Musharraf has told American officials that Pakistani military operations in the tribal areas in recent years so alienated local residents that they no longer provide the central government with quality intelligence about the movements of senior Islamic militants.
Congressional Democrats have threatened to review military assistance and other aid to Pakistan unless they see evidence of aggressive attacks on Al Qaeda. The House of Representatives passed a measure last month linking future military aid to White House certification that Pakistan "is making all possible efforts to prevent the Taliban from operating in areas under its sovereign control."
Pakistan is now the fifth-largest recipient of American aid. Bush has proposed $785 million in aid to Pakistan in his new budget, including $300 million in military aid to help Pakistan combat Islamic radicalism.
The rumblings from Congress give Bush and his top advisers a way of conveying the seriousness of the problem, officials said, without appearing to issue a direct threat to Pakistan themselves.
"We think the Pakistani aid is at risk in Congress," said the senior official, who could not speak on the record because intelligence matters were involved.
The administration has sent a series of emissaries to see Musharraf in recent weeks, including Gates, who was charged with prompting more action in a region in which U.S. forces operate with great constraints, if they are allowed in at all.
"This is not the type of relationship where we can order action," said an administration official involved in discussions over Pakistan policy. "We can strongly encourage."
Relations between Musharraf and Bush have always been tense, as the Pakistani veers between his need for American support and protection and his awareness that many Pakistani people â€” and his intelligence service â€” have strong sympathies for Al Qaeda and the Taliban.
Officials involved with the issue describe the current moment as especially tense.
Bush was deeply skeptical of the deal Musharraf struck with the tribal leaders last year, fearing that it would limit Pakistan's powers to intercede in what Bush has called the "Wild West" of Waziristan, administration officials said at the time.
U.S. intelligence officials have made an assessment that senior Qaeda leaders in Pakistan have re-established significant control over their global network and are training operatives in some of the camps for strikes on Western targets.