The US is bolstering its troop presence in Afghanistan to help repel a "spring offensive" anticipated by the US and Nato after the bloodiest year there since the Taliban was ousted in 2001.

 

The New York Times reported on Monday that George Bush, the US president, had decided to send an unusually tough message to Musharraf, warning him that the newly elected Democratic US congress could cut aid unless his forces were far more aggressive in hunting down operatives with al-Qaeda.

   

Taliban forces and elements of al-Qaeda, blamed for the September 11 attacks on the US, are suspected of operating from the remote mountainous border area between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

 

Frustration

 

Pakistan's military ruler has been seen as a close US ally in the "war on terror" since 2001, but has recently come under mounting pressure from the West amid fears of a threatened spring offensive from the Taliban.

 

"Cheney expressed US apprehensions of regrouping of al-Qaeda in the tribal areas and called for concerted efforts in countering the threat," an official Pakistani statement said after his two-hour meeting with Musharraf.

  

The US vice president also communicated "serious US concerns on the intelligence being picked up of an impending Taliban 'spring offensive' against allied forces in Afghanistan," the statement said.

    

The Pakistan statement said Musharraf had called on Pakistani, Afghan, Nato and US forces to take "joint responsibility" for stopping illegal crossings along the 2,500km border with Afghanistan.

 

He also defended a controversial peace deal with Taliban fighters in the North Waziristan tribal region that was signed in September.

  

He said political and administrative efforts in the tribal areas "would help curb al-Qaeda and Taliban activities and avert any Talibanisation in the area".

 

The US has about 27,000 troops in Afghanistan, of which about 15,000 are in the Nato force and the rest on missions ranging from counter-terrorism to training.

            

Bush has been criticised for pursuing war in Iraq at the expense of Afghanistan, a charge the administration denies.

   

His new push in Afghanistan has solid support in congress, unlike his plan to send another 21,500 US troops to Iraq, which has drawn ferocious opposition from Democrats.