U.S. officials praised Pakistan for Tuesday's intensified military offensive against the Taliban but cautioned that it was too soon to tell whether embattled President Asif Ali Zardari is able or willing to mount a lasting crackdown on the militants.
As part of an effort to help stabilize the country and persuade Islamabad to expand its offensive, Democratic lawmakers, prodded by some senior administration officials, are weighing whether to accelerate delivery of emergency aid to Pakistan.
Pakistani fighter jets on Tuesday bombed Taliban positions in Buner district, 70 miles from Islamabad, and troops moved into the area after days of muted military efforts against a militant advance out of the Swat Valley.
U.S. officials praised the moves, but cautioned that it was too early to tell if Pakistan's government would mount a concerted, continued offensive against the Taliban.
"The military operations that are under way in Buner...are exactly the appropriate response to the offensive operations by the Taliban," said Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell. "The test of all of these Pakistani military operations -- because we've seen them from time to time in the past -- is always their sustainability."
Democratic lawmakers and senior Obama administration officials are weighing whether to bolster Pakistan's efforts by providing about $500 million in counterinsurgency funding and economic assistance in the next few weeks, and as much as $1 billion more later this year, when Congress acts on a $83.4 billion war-spending bill requested by President Barack Obama, said people familiar with the deliberations.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D., Md.) said "congressional leaders...are discussing with the administration what is needed" to help stabilize Pakistan. He suggested that Pakistan "in many ways is of higher concern right now than Afghanistan."
Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited Pakistan last week and came away "more concerned about the security situation in Pakistan than he had ever been before," said his spokesman, Capt. John Kirby.
"It felt more precarious," he said. "He was deeply alarmed and frustrated."
U.S. military officials in Afghanistan had opposed Pakistan's decision to cede control of the Swat Valley to the Taliban in a pact reached in February. They said they grew more concerned in the past week after the militants moved into Buner and Lower Dir, which bridges the mountains between Swat and the Afghan border. U.S. officials said the result could be a "pipeline" allowing militants to travel between Afghanistan and the Pakistani heartland.
U.S. officials also worry that their Afghanistan-based drones, which have been used to kill suspected militants in Pakistan's border areas, would have a difficult time striking targets in Buner and Swat because they are deeper inside Pakistani territory.
Financial aid represents one of the administration's most-potent tools for trying to influence Pakistani behavior. Under the $83.4 billion war-spending bill -- which is designed to fund U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan through the end of September -- Pakistan is set to get more than $400 million in counterinsurgency funding and $1.4 billion in economic assistance. But Congress isn't likely to vote on the bill until late this summer.
Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. special representative for Pakistan and Afghanistan, first raised the idea of expediting the distribution of a portion of the aid money in a meeting with top House Democrats last week, congressional officials said.
A senior White House official expressed skepticism about breaking funds for Afghanistan and Pakistan from the larger war spending request, saying the administration couldn't support any move that could jeopardize the rest of the package.