Vice President Dick Cheney's unannounced visit to this capital Monday was the latest and most visible sign of renewed American 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."
Cheney became the latest high-ranking U.S. official to press Musharraf to rein in what American officials characterize as a volatile mix of homegrown militant groups, Taliban strategists and Al Qaeda elements, all operating with increasing freedom in the tribal zones along the Afghan-Pakistani border.
The issue has been central to U.S.-Pakistani 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 from the nation in combating militants' cross-border infiltration of 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 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. Cheney "expressed U.S. apprehensions of [the] regrouping of Al Qaeda in the tribal areas and called for concerted efforts in countering the threat," the statement said.
Cheney was accompanied by Stephen 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 already is doing all it can, and that the burden of confronting the Taliban and its allies must be shared by others, including Afghanistan and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
The Pakistani president 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, the fifth-largest recipient of U.S. foreign assistance, Musharraf decried "proposed discriminatory legislation regarding U.S. aid to Pakistan," said the Pakistani statement.
The New York Times reported Monday that President Bush intended to warn Musharraf that congressional Democrats might seek such cuts in response to the Pakistani leader's perceived reluctance to confront the militant threat.
In Washington, White House Press Secretary Tony Snow said, "The Pakistanis remain committed to doing everything possible to fight Al Qaeda, but having said that, we also know that there's a lot more that needs to be done."
Much of the recent Western criticism of Musharraf has centered on a deal struck last year with tribal elders in the North Waziristan area, under which Pakistani troops pulled back to their barracks in exchange for a pledge that the Taliban and other insurgents would not use the area as a springboard for attacks against NATO forces. Coalition military officials say cross-border attacks have increased sharply in the wake of the pact.
But Musharraf, whose government is reported to be contemplating a similar deal in the Bajur tribal agency, defended the Waziristan accord, telling Cheney that economic incentives and political moves were the best way to counter insurgents' influence in the tribal areas.
Pakistani Foreign Minister Mian Khursheed Mehmood Kasuri, meanwhile, made similar arguments after a meeting Monday with British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett.
Kasuri declared that Pakistan was being criticized unfairly, and blamed NATO and Afghan troops for failing to halt cross-border infiltration.
"We've got 1,000 checkposts; they've only got 100," he said.
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 hit by 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 that Musharraf risked being blamed if such raids triggered 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."
And Musharraf is unlikely to let his own domestic political agenda be dictated by Washington, Roy-Chaudhury said.
"We've seen a ratcheting up of pressure on Musharraf, certainly, but his No. 1 priority is that this is an election year, and he wants to stay in power," he said.
Times staff writer James Gerstenzang in Washington and special correspondent Mubashir Zaidi in Islamabad contributed to this report.