By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
Jan. 24, 2008 - The United States remains "ready, willing and able" to assist Pakistan and partner with the nation as it takes on al Qaeda, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said during a Pentagon news conference today. Gates and Navy Adm. Michael G. Mullen discussed the situation in Pakistan, saying the Pakistani government now understands the threat extremist groups in the country's federally administered tribal areas pose.
The U.S. military stands ready to provide additional training or to conduct joint operations with the Pakistani military. "We have an ongoing dialogue (with the Pakistanis)," Gates said. "I will just say that in a way, the emergence of this fairly considerable security challenge in Pakistan has really been brought home to the Pakistani government relatively recently, particularly by the tragic assassination of Mrs. (Benazir) Bhutto."
Bhutto, a former prime minister of Pakistan, was killed following a political rally Dec. 27.
Al Qaeda has threatened to destabilize Pakistan and has targeted Pakistani leaders, Gates said. U.S. officials believe that al Qaeda has allied with other extremist groups in the border area, the secretary said.
"I think we're all concerned about the re-establishment of al Qaeda safe havens in the border area," Gates said. "And I think it would be unrealistic to assume that all of the planning that they are doing is focused solely on Pakistan. I think it is a continuing threat to Europe as well as to us."
Pakistan's leaders are working through their strategy in the tribal areas. Mullen said that Pakistan is an important U.S. ally in the fight against terror, and America stands ready to provide assistance. "We've had a considerable training program with Pakistan for quite some time," the admiral said. "If there is a desire on the part of the Pakistani armed forces and the Pakistani government to have us assist, we would certainly try to do that."
Still, there is no move afoot for additional U.S. training cadres going into Pakistan, the chairman said. "The dialogue will continue, and the engagement is going to continue," he said.
Pakistan is a sovereign country, and Pakistani leaders will decide if forces from another country are needed in the fight against al Qaeda in the tribal areas, Gates said. "We will continue the dialogue, but we will not do anything without their approval," he said.
According to polls, the vast majority of Pakistanis do not want U.S. military assistance. If the government were to ask for U.S. aid, Pakistani leaders would have to evaluate what that move would mean domestically, Gates said.
Still, operations targeting al Qaeda would not mean vast numbers of American combat troops. "In my way of thinking, we are talking of a small number of U.S. troops, and that is clearly a pretty remote area," he said. "Again, the Pakistani government has to be the judge of this."
Mullen said that any aid would likely be training assistance. "A specific (example) may be helping train them in night operations," he said.
The United States is prepared to look at a range of ways to cooperate with Pakistan, Gates said. "But at this point, it's their nickel, and we await proposals and suggestions from them," he said.