WASHINGTON – The U.S. military would be willing to undertake joint combat operations with Pakistani forces against Islamic militants if Pakistani leaders request the help, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Thursday.
Gates’ remarks at a Pentagon briefing represented the first such public offer by a top Bush administration official since a change in 2007 in Pakistan’s military leadership. It also reflects growing U.S. concern over the renewed militancy there.
Before Thursday, Pentagon officials avoided raising the possibility of combat operations with Pakistanis because of opposition by President Pervez Musharraf and the likelihood of widespread protests against U.S. involvement.
Asked about a widely reported proposal for expanding the U.S. military’s training activities in Pakistan, Gates said the Pentagon was willing to go further by conducting joint combat operations.
He said using U.S. combat troops in Pakistan to pursue al-Qaida leaders was the “subject of ongoing dialogue” with officials there.
“We remain ready, willing and able to assist the Pakistanis and to partner with them, to provide additional training, to conduct joint operations, should they desire to do so,” Gates said.
Adm. William J. Fallon, the Pentagon’s commander for the Middle East, was in Pakistan this week to meet with senior officials. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael G. Mullen, said he did not know whether Fallon issued any new proposals to the Pakistanis.
“I think certainly 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,” said Mullen, appearing with Gates.
Gates said the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto had focused the U.S. military on the “considerable security challenge” posed by extremists in Pakistan.
The United States has 28,000 troops in Afghanistan, but those forces are not allowed to cross into Pakistan to pursue Taliban or al-Qaida militants.
Pakistan is a “sovereign country,” Gates said, insisting the United States would not conduct combat operations inside its borders without an agreement.
“They clearly have the right to decide whether or not forces from another country are going to operate on their soil,” he said. “We will continue the dialogue, but we would not do anything without their approval.”
The remarks by Gates were the latest signal of improving ties between the U.S. military and the Pakistani military since Gen. Ashfaq Kiani became Pakistan’s new army chief of staff in November, when Musharraf relinquished the post under political pressure.
Kiani has taken steps to focus his forces on the threat of Islamic militants and is working with the U.S. military to improve the Pakistani army’s counterinsurgency training.
Gates’ comments also may represent increased administration pressure on Pakistan to take the Pentagon up on its offer to conduct joint military or training operations. Gates said that the U.S. and its allies are concerned about the re-establishment of al-Qaida safe havens in the border region.