WASHINGTON, Jan 25: The United States remains “ready, willing and able” to assist Pakistan and partner with the Pakistani armed forces as they take on Al Qaeda, says US Defence Secretary Robert M. Gates.

Mr Gates and Admiral Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, discussed the situation in Pakistan at a Pentagon news conference on Thursday, noting that the Pakistani government now understands the threat extremist groups in the tribal areas pose.

“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,” said Mr Gates.

“I think certainly if there is a desire on the part of the Pakistani government and armed forces to have us assist, we would certainly try to do that,” added Mr Mullen, appearing with Mr Gates.

Admiral William J. Fallon, the US commander for the region which includes Pakistan, has reportedly prepared a plan to significantly increase America’s role in the fight against Al Qaeda and Taliban extremists in the tribal area. Admiral Fallon was in Islamabad this week to meet senior officials but Admiral Mullen said he did not know whether Mr Fallon made any new proposals to the Pakistanis.

Defence Secretary Gates said the assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto had prompted the US military to focus on the “considerable security challenge” posed by extremists in Pakistan.

The “tragic assassination,” he said, also “brought home to the Pakistanis” the severity of “this considerable security challenge” in their country.

The United States, he said, has an “ongoing dialogue” with the Pakistanis on how to provide additional training to their troops and on the possibility of conducing joint operations with them.

Pakistan is a “sovereign country,” Mr Gates said, and therefore, the US would not conduct combat operations within 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 US has 28,000 troops in Afghanistan, but those forces are not allowed to cross into Pakistan to pursue Taliban or Al Qaeda militants.

The US media noted that Mr Gates’ remarks were the latest sign of improving ties between the US and Pakistani militaries since Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani became Pakistan’s army chief of staff in November.

The media also noted that Mr Gates’ comments indicate increased US pressure on Pakistan to take the Pentagon up on its offer to conduct joint military activities or additional training operations.

Mr Gates said the US and its allies are concerned about the reestablishment of Al Qaeda havens in the tribal region.

“Al Qaeda has threatened to try and destabilise Pakistan, has threatened to assassinate Pakistani leaders,” he said. “Some of this lacks real clarity. But they clearly are much more active and working with other people.”

Mr Gates, however, said that any combat operation in Pakistan would involve a small number of troops.

“You’re not talking about significant numbers of US troops . . . if you’re talking about going after Al Qaeda in the border area or something like that,” he said.

Admiral Mullen said that Pakistan is an important US ally in the fight against terror, and America stands ready to provide assistance. “The dialogue (with Pakistan) will continue, and the engagement is going to continue.”

The Pentagon, which used Mr Gates’ and Admiral Mullen’s remarks as the main story on its official Web site also referred to recent polls in Pakistan showing that the vast majority of Pakistanis do not want US military assistance.

It quoted Mr Gates as saying that if Islamabad were to ask for the US aid, Pakistani leaders would have to evaluate what that move would mean domestically.

“Again, the Pakistani government has to be the judge of this,” he said.

Admiral 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, Mr Gates said. “But at this point, it’s their nickel, and we await proposals and suggestions from them,” he said.