Cheney warns of Taliban 'spring offensive'

US Vice President Dick Cheney today sought Pakistan’s help in countering al-Qaida’s efforts to regroup in its remote border region.

He warned that Taliban militants are planning a “spring offensive” in neighbouring Afghanistan, the Pakistani president’s office said.

However, President General Pervez Musharraf insisted that his forces had already “done the maximum” possible against extremists in their territory - and insisted other allies also shoulder responsibility in the US-led war on terrorism.

Cheney, accompanied by CIA Deputy Director Steve Kappes, stopped over in Pakistan today en route to Afghanistan, where snow prevented him from reaching Kabul for talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

Cheney made no public comment in Pakistan.

His visit highlights growing alarm in the Bush administration and its Nato allies at how militants have regained ground in Afghanistan and Pakistan five years after the Taliban’s ousting from power.

A senior aide to Musharraf said Cheney and the general held detailed talks, including a one-on-one lunch that lasted more than an hour.

“Cheney expressed US apprehensions of regrouping of al Qaida in the tribal areas and called for concerted efforts in countering the threat,” Musharraf’s office said later in a statement.

He also “expressed serious US concerns on the intelligence being picked up of an impending Taliban and al Qaida ’spring offensive’ against allied forces in Afghanistan,” the statement said.

The Musharraf aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not an official spokesman, said the two men had “exchanged ideas and suggestions” on improving co-operation against terrorism. However, he said Cheney had made no specific demands for Pakistani action.

The vice president’s visit had been kept secret until the last moment for security reasons. He landed at a military base outside Islamabad and then took a helicopter to the presidential palace, a grand white building overlooking Pakistan’s planned capital.

US and British officials praise Pakistan publicly for its role in arresting al Qaida suspects who hid in Pakistan after the September 11, 2001, attacks in the United States and for a string of bloody operations against militants along the border.

But there are signs of frustration at Musharraf’s limited success in disrupting Pakistan-based Taliban fighters, who are expected to step up raids into Afghanistan in the coming months, and in trapping Taliban and al Qaida leaders suspected of holing up in Pakistan.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said yesterday: “I don’t doubt that al Qaida has tried to regenerate some of its leadership.”

America is working with Pakistan and Afghanistan and other countries to “degrade this institution, this organisation worldwide and on the Afghan border,” Rice said on ABC’s This Week programme.

Musharraf complains that Pakistan is being unfairly singled out for blame for problems rooted in the US-sponsored jihad against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.

He also contends there is no evidence that al Qaida leader Osama bin Laden or the Taliban’s Mullah Omar are on Pakistani soil.

Musharraf today told Cheney that “most of the Taliban activities originated from Afghanistan and the solution of the issue also lies within that country,” his office said.

The 50,000-plus Nato and US troops in Afghanistan as well as Afghan security forces also share responsibility for policing the Afghan-Pakistan border, Musharraf added.

Musharraf also expressed concern about proposed US legislation that would link Washington’s generous military aid to a certification by President George Bush that Pakistan is doing its best to counter Taliban operations in Pakistan and secure its long Afghan frontier.

US officials have said they expect to persuade Democrats to drop the link before the Bill, which passed the House of Representatives in January, becomes law.

However, a report in Monday’s New York Times said the White House was unhappy with a peace deal that Musharraf struck with militants in the North Waziristan border region in September and would warn him that Congress could cut off aid unless his forces act more aggressively.

It was unclear whether Cheney had delivered such a message on Monday.

Musharraf defended the North Waziristan agreement, under which tribal leaders are supposed to curb militant activities, as “the way forward”, his office said.

Critics say the deal has effectively ceded control of the area to pro-Taliban militants and allowed them to step up recruitment and cross-border attacks.

Pakistani officials acknowledge that the deal has not been properly implemented, but argue that that large-scale military action was alienating moderate tribesmen. The US is helping fund a development programme designed to persuade tribal leaders to turn decisively against the militants.

British Foreign Minister Margaret Beckett also visited Islamabad on Monday and said after her talks with Musharraf and Pakistani Foreign Minister Khursheed Kasuri that both Britain and Pakistan should help curb militants.

Britain has about 5,500 soldiers in Afghanistan and today announced that it would raise that number to about 7,700.

“We very much welcome the co-operation and support that we have had from the government of Pakistan,” Beckett said.

“We all agree that that is something we wish to see continue and wish to see strengthened. And of course we all would like to see people who are terrorists not able to rest in safe havens.”

Kasuri said he did not know whether the US had shared with Pakistan any intelligence showing that al Qaida is reorganising in the border region.

Pakistan says it relies heavily on US spy satellites and drones to track militants.

“If al-Qaida is regrouping in any area and if the intelligence is given – and intelligence is useful only when it is timely and when it is actionable ... I have no doubt that we’ll be following it,” Kasuri said.

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