WASHINGTON (CNN) -- U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said Thursday that the United States is "ready, able and willing" to send troops to Pakistan if the government of the South Asian nation is interested.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates says any move to send troops would depend on Pakistan.
U.S. military officials have told CNN that commanders are reviewing a classified planning order that could result in troops going to Pakistan for training purposes if Pakistan's government approves.
The announcement comes as Pakistan's government faces what Gates called increased efforts by al Qaeda.
Musharraf and other Pakistani leaders, however, have repeatedly said it is their military -- not that of the United States -- that will fight elements of al Qaeda and the Taliban that are believed to live and train in the mountainous region of Pakistan that borders Afghanistan.
"It's obviously been a subject of ongoing dialogue," Gates said. "Pakistan is a sovereign country; they clearly have the right to decide whether or not forces from another country are going to operate on their soil.
"We will continue the dialogue, but we would not do anything without their approval."
Analysts say the visible presence of U.S. troops -- particularly a large ground force -- could provoke anti-American sentiment among many Pakistanis.
"The presence of U.S. forces in Pakistan would be hugely inflammatory for the rest of the country and probably would destabilize Pakistan in a more serious way than it is right now," said Frederick Barton of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. "So, clearly, training is the best thing we can do."
Pakistani opposition leader Imran Khan, in comments to CNN International, predicted that a heavy U.S. military presence in the tribal areas along the Pakistan-Afghan border would make the situation worse, not better.
"If the U.S. sends its troops into the tribal areas, it will be a bigger quagmire than Iraq," said Khan, a former cricket star seeking the nation's presidency. "It will be the biggest disaster U.S. could commit."
Khan, who is harshly critical of Musharraf, said the president has "finally" begun engaging tribal leaders in the area in an attempt to isolate al Qaeda and other terror groups -- an effort he says a U.S. presence would harm.
"Winning the tribal people over to your side is not (done) by using helicopter gunships and bombing the villages where innocent people are dying ... you're actually pushing them in the other direction," Khan said. "People who understand the tribal area would never think of such a policy."
Gates said that if a training plan went through, it likely would involve "a very small number" of U.S. troops.
The cost of any new training program would be in addition to the $750 million in security and economic aide the United States provides to the country.
Pakistan is considered an ally in the war against al Qaeda and the Taliban, despite concerns among some about Musharraf's humanitarian record and level of dedication to stamping out extremists.
Musharraf placed the country under a six-week state of emergency late last year, during which he ousted most of the Supreme Court justices who had been expected to nullify his recent election victory on constitutional grounds. A former leader of Pakistan's military, Musharraf seized power in a bloodless coup in 1999.
Gates said al Qaeda has increased its activity in Pakistan and begun partnering with other extremist groups in the nation -- a situation that threatens not just the country or region, but the whole world.
"It would be unreasonable to assume that all of the planning they're doing is focused strictly on Pakistan," he said. "I think that it's a continued threat to Europe as well as to us." E-mail to a friend