U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Thursday the United States is willing to send troops into Pakistan to help defeat al-Qaida and Taliban forces based along the Afghanistan border, if Pakistan wants the help. The insurgents have increasingly turned their attacks on Pakistan itself. But on Friday, Pakistan's president said he does not want U.S. troops, and analysts caution that such a move, while militarily attractive, could have negative consequences. VOA's Al Pessin reports from the Pentagon.
Secretary Gates surprised a lot of people Thursday when he mentioned joint military operations as a possible part of increased U.S. military aid to Pakistan.
"We remain ready, willing and able to assist the Pakistanis, to partner with them, to provide additional training, to conduct joint operations should they desire to do so," he said.
Currently, officials say there are about 25 U.S. troops in Pakistan, involved in counter narcotics operations and counter-terrorism training, as well as several dozen more at the U.S. embassy. And Secretary Gates cautioned that there is no actual plan to send combat troops, and he said any increased American involvement would only come at Pakistan's invitation.
"We are talking here about possibilities for cooperation," he added. "We are not aware of any proposals that the Pakistanis have made to us at this point. This is clearly an evolving issue, and what we have tried to communicate to the Pakistanis, and essentially what we are saying here is, we are prepared to look at a range of cooperation in a number of different areas, and we await proposals or suggestions from them."
During a speech in Europe Friday, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf said a request for combat troops is not likely to come.
"The man on the street in Pakistan does not want any foreign intrusion into Pakistan," he explained. "It's an issue of the sovereignty of our country. And the United States and anyone who talks of that must understand the sensitivity of the man in the street. So, I don't think this is possible at all that any foreign forces will be allowed into Pakistan. It is militarily unwise, and, politically, I don't think it's acceptable to the people of Pakistan."
U.S. officials have said American troops experienced at fighting insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan could help Pakistan's army adapt to that unique and difficult type of warfare. But President Musharraf was fairly dismissive of U.S. experience, and performance, in counterinsurgency.
"I don't know why there are people who think that maybe the U.S. forces have some kind of a will, some kind of a magic wand, and they'll come and they'll set everything right and go back," he added. "Please understand that they have their hands full in Afghanistan. They need more force in Afghanistan. I can't imagine them coming into Pakistan."
Still, experts say Pakistan does need some help addressing the new challenge from al-Qaida and the Taliban, who, until a few months ago, mostly used their safe havens in western Pakistan to plan and launch attacks outside of the country.
"In terms of joint operations, this also may be necessary, and, frankly, will probably be the only way to really defeat these elements," said Lisa Curtis, a South Asia analyst at the Heritage Foundation and former U.S. government official specializing in the region's issues.
"But certainly they have to have the will and the desire, and I think, right now, even though they realize that the threat is increasingly turning inward on them, and they have to do something about it, they have not come to the point where they're willing to have U.S. boots on the ground," she added.
Curtis says short of sending combat troops, the United States could take other steps, like increasing training for Pakistani forces and enhancing intelligence sharing. She says Pakistan needs the help, because it has not prepared its army for this kind of fight.
"Well, it's completely different," she explained. "They had been focused on the possibility of fighting a war with another state, for example India. They had focused on supporting insurgents to bleed the Indian military in Kashmir. Now, what you're seeing is the same militants that they had supported, and the same ideology of using religious fervor to inspire militants toward fighting jihad is now turning on the Pakistani state itself."
Whatever approach Pakistan takes to address the new threat, Secretary Gates and other U.S. officials see the situation as urgent because al-Qaida and the Taliban are not only threatening a nuclear power and U.S. ally, but would like to increase their attacks elsewhere, too.
"We're all concerned about the re-establishment of al-Qaida safe havens in the border area," said Mr. Gates. "And, I think it would be unrealistic to assume that all of the planning that they're doing is focused strictly on Pakistan. So, I think that that is a continuing threat to Europe, as well as to us."
U.S. officials and analysts agree Pakistan needs to figure out soon how it will address the Taliban and al-Qaida threat, but they also say any U.S. involvement must not endanger the future of what officials see as one of the key U.S. foreign relationships.