WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said Thursday the United States is "ready, able and willing" to send troops to Pakistan to help its military battle al Qaeda -- if the Pakistani government is interested.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates says al Qaeda has increased its activity in Pakistan.
The announcement comes as Pakistan's government faces what Gates called increased efforts there by the terrorist group.
It also comes in the wake of the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto -- which further destabilized the government of President Pervez Musharraf.
"In a way, I think the emergence of this fairly considerable security challenge in Pakistan has really been brought home to the Pakistani government fairly recently," Gates said.
U.S. military officials have said commanders are reviewing a classified planning order that could result in troops going to Pakistan for training purposes if Pakistan's government approves.
Musharraf and other Pakistani leaders have repeatedly said it is their military -- not that of the United States -- that will fight elements of al Qaeda and the Taliban who are thought 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 stir dangerous anti-American passion 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."
Gates said 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 aid 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