Donald Rumsfeld, the United States Defence Secretary, outlined American plans for a ground war to the Pakistani President, General Pervez Musharraf, last night amid increasing Muslim concerns over military action during the holy month of Ramadan.
On the third stop of a trip through Russia, central Asia and India and Pakistan, Mr Rumsfeld insisted that the Taliban were "not really functioning" as a government.
But his presence in Pakistan, at a time of growing scepticism about the success of the campaign, suggests that the coalition is in greater need than ever of Pakistan's military support at a pivotal moment in its campaign.
Despite renewed requests last night, General Musharraf failed to secure a promise from Mr Rumsfeld that there would be a pause in the attacks when Ramadan begins later this month. Continuing the attacks would further inflame an already enraged pro-Taliban minority in Pakistan.
Mr Rumsfeld said: "I'm certainly aware of the the concerns of President Musharraf, and of any number of other countries across the globe. It's an important question and an issue that we are sensitive to. But the reality is that threats of terrorist acts are still there and ... they offer the prospect of still more thousands of people being killed."
The Defence Secretary gave no firm details of his discussions with the Pakistanis, and flew on late last night for more talks in the Indian capital, Delhi. But his visit came at a time when the political dilemma facing General Musharraf grows ever sharper.
Pakistan's co-operation with the US has won it greater international recognition than it has enjoyed for decades. An American arms embargo has been lifted and, during a visit last month, the Secretary of State, General Colin Powell, promised to reschedule Pakistan's massive debt burden.
According to Pakistani reports, General Musharraf also presented the Americans with a list of military equipment it wishes to purchase, including new fighter aircraft and spare parts. The quid pro quo is likely to come in the form of American requests for greater access to Pakistani military bases.
Pakistan has already made three military airfields available to the Americans for logistical support and search and rescue missions – a decision that has enraged supporters of the Taliban in Pakistan.
So far the demonstrations have been limited to a vociferous minority. But if direct military support for the campaign was extended any further, especially during Ramadan, the political pressures on General Musharraf would increase severely. The strength of feeling in Pakistan was underlined yesterday when 1,500 armed tribesmen crossed into Afghanistan to fight with the Taliban.
The Pakistanis are also hostile towards any big advances by the opposition Northern Alliance, which has been gearing up for an advance on the Afghan capital, Kabul, after intense American bombing of the Taliban front lines.
According to Pakistani officials last night, General Musharraf and Mr Rumsfeld discussed prospects for a future coalition ground offensive and the shape of a post-Taliban regime in Kabul.
Mr Rumsfeld said after a meeting with Abdul Sattar, Pakistan's Foreign Minister: "The Taliban is not really functioning as a government as such. As a military force they have concentrations of power that exist. They have military capabilities that exist. They are using their power in enclaves ... to impose their will.
"They are using mosques for ammunition storage, command and control. They are putting tanks and artillery in close proximity to schools and residential areas and they are continuously lying about civilian casualties in the country," Mr Rumsfeld said. "I think that probably gives you an idea of what I think about the Taliban."
Yesterday, for the first time in nine days, traffic began to flow normally along the Karakoram Highway, the mountain road that runs between northern Pakistan and China. Pro-Taliban tribesmen had blockaded it until Friday and traffic was delayed for a further two days while the route was cleared of rock falls brought on by heavy rains.Reuse content