DAVOS, Switzerland – Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pressed Pakistani leader Pervez Musharraf on Wednesday to ensure that next month's elections are free and fair and urged him to boost counterterrorism cooperation with the U.S. and neighboring Afghanistan.
Meeting with Musharraf here on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum, Rice praised him as a steadfast ally in the war on terror whose country would continue to receive substantial U.S. support. But she stressed that he must uphold his stated commitment to democracy.
The meeting was the highest-level, face-to-face U.S. contact with the Pakistani leader since last month's assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, and it came as Musharraf faces growing discontent at home and the Bush administration fights congressional efforts to curb its backing.
Separately, Rice and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, also in Davos, discussed counterterrorism and narcotics challenges as well as NATO's role in combatting extremists in Afghanistan. The alliance has faced recent U.S. criticism.
"NATO is not performing perfectly," Rice said in a speech to the forum. "We are engaged in a real war in Afghanistan. ... This is not just a peacekeeping operation, and the stakes could not be higher for the Afghan people, for our alliance, and for our security."
In remarks to the same audience, Karzai warned of the global danger from a "wildfire spread of terrorism" in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Musharraf's meeting with Rice was part of a European tour aimed at reassuring Western leaders about his ability to restore democracy and prevail in the escalating combat between government troops and Taliban rebels along Pakistan's mountainous border with Afghanistan.
Yet many are waiting until Pakistan's Feb. 18 parliamentary elections to determine if Musharraf is serious about democracy given several of his actions last year, including the imposition of emergency rule, that have placed his commitment into question.
While the state of emergency was lifted and he has stepped down as army chief, the Dec. 27 assassination of Bhutto created new uncertainties about what was already expected to be elections fraught with difficulties, not least of which was Musharraf's crackdown on the opposition.
Rice and Musharraf "talked about the importance of upcoming elections and the fact that they need to be free and fair — and be seen as free and fair," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters after the meeting. "And the Pakistani people need to have confidence in them."
Musharraf has promised that the elections would be free and fair and said detractors should be more patient with his nation's efforts to achieve higher standards of human rights, decrying the West's "obsession" with speedy democracy.
Late Tuesday, an influential group of retired officers from Pakistan's powerful military urged Musharraf to step down immediately, saying his resignation would promote democracy and help combat religious militancy.
Although the group does not speak for serving officers, its call is an embarrassment to Musharraf, whose popularity has nose-dived among the civilian population and whose credentials abroad have been sullied by an increasingly authoritarian streak and rise in insurgent activity.
Ahead of Wednesday's meeting, Rice said the Bush administration would strongly oppose attempts by Congress to further restrict or limit billions of dollars in U.S. aid it provides to Pakistan.
The United States has given the country some $10 billion since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Much of the money has gone to help train and equip Pakistani security forces to battle Taliban and al-Qaida extremists as well as to improve intelligence cooperation.
McCormack said the Rice-Musharraf talks also covered security matters, but he offered no details.
The Bush administration has been discussing expanding beyond small teams of U.S. military trainers and advisers now in Pakistan but has faced resistance from Musharraf's government.
In Washington, a commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan said Taliban and al-Qaida fighters operating from havens in the largely ungoverned tribal areas of western Pakistan appear to have shifted their focus toward targets inside Pakistan rather than across the border in Afghanistan.
Army Maj. Gen. David Rodriguez said that is partly due to ordinary Afghans' disillusionment with the Taliban movement and partly because the Taliban and al-Qaida fighters see new opportunities to accelerate instability inside Pakistan. He also said Afghan security forces are becoming more effective partners with U.S. forces.
Despite U.S. concerns, Rodriguez said he sees no sign that the United States is preparing to send forces into Pakistan without the Pakistan government's approval. "We're not planning that," he said, speaking to reporters at the Pentagon. "Pakistan is a sovereign government and we have no plans that I'm involved in or have even heard of to do anything like that."
Rodriguez commands U.S. forces in the volatile eastern region of Afghanistan, where he said he doesn't expect the Taliban to stage a spring offensive.