WASHINGTON– As the United States reviews its strategy in Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said he’s gratified by Pakistan’s growing recognition of the importance of eliminating extremist safe havens along its border. Speaking on CNBC’s “Meet the Press,” Gates called the situation on the Pakistani side of the volatile border region “worrisome.” He noted that the region has become a haven for Taliban, al-Qaida and other extremist groups that work together to support common goals.

“As long as they have a safe haven to operate there, it is going to be a problem for us in Afghanistan,” Gates said. “The key here is our being able to cooperate with and enable the Pakistanis to be able to deal with this problem on their own sovereign territory.”

Gates said his talks with Pakistani leaders during the past week, part of the Obama administration’s review of the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, left him convinced that Pakistan recognizes the importance of fixing the problem.

“They clearly now understand that what is going on in that border area is as big a risk to the stability of Pakistan as it is a problem for us in Afghanistan,” he said.

Gates said the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, along with military and civil support provided by other partner nations, is helping provide stability. This, he said, is preventing terrorists from reclaiming former safe havens in Afghanistan that could be used to plot against the United States and other countries.

As the United States reviews its Afghanistan strategy, President Barack Obama is promoting broad dialogue and seeking input from not only Afghanistan and Pakistan, but also Europeans and other allies. “We’re bringing in an awful lot of people to get different points of view,” Gates said.

Gates said the review, which he hopes will be completed in a few weeks, will help establish a way forward. He said it also will help determine whether more than the 17,000 additional troops already authorized will be sent to Afghanistan.

The secretary addressed a variety of other defense-related issues during today’s Meet the Press broadcast.

On Iran:

The U.S. focus on Iraq — now or in the past — hasn’t distracted the past or current administration from “the growing problem with Iran and its nuclear program,” Gates said.

“I think there has been a continuing focus on, ‘How do you get the Iranians to walk away from a nuclear weapons program?’ Gates said. “They are not close to a stockpile. They are not close to a weapon at this time. And so it is a question of whether you can increase the level of the sanctions and the cost to the Iranians of pursuing that program.”

At the same time, Gates said it’s necessary to “show them an open door if they want to engage with the Europeans or with us” if they abandon the program.

The global economic crisis and the drop in oil prices that’s left Iran cash-strapped could actually help the effort, he said. “Our chances of being successful seems to be a lot better at $35 or $40 dollar [a barrel] oil than they were at $140 oil, because there are economic costs to this program,” Gates said.

On Mexico:

The United States could help the Mexican government in its crackdown on drug cartels, Gates said.

The secretary heralded President Felipe Calderón’s initiatives and said the United States could ultimately be in a position to help. Among assets the U.S. military might contribute, he said, are training, reconnaissance and surveillance capabilities and other resources.

“It clearly is a serious problem,” Gates said.

On the global economic crisis:

The economic crisis poses a serious threat to international stability and international cooperation, Gates said.

“Terrorism is a much more limited and defined threat,” he said. “They are both real. [But] the economic threat clearly affects many, many more people and countries.”

On Russia:

Russia represents “a real challenge” as Prime Minister Vladimir Putin asserts Russian’s role as an international player by blocking initiatives it doesn’t support, Gates said.

But “there is a chance to reset the relationship, because there are a number of areas where we have common interests,” including arms control, he said, reiterating Vice President Joe Biden’s recent comments at a security conference in Munich, Germany.

“So we will be looking for opportunities to see if we can make some progress with the Russians,” Gates said. “But it has been tough.”

On serving as defense secretary:

Gates remained mum on how long he intends to serve as Obama’s defense secretary, saying he has no specific date in mind to leave his post.

The decision, he said, is “clearly up to the president.”

But asked if he would remain on the job through the end of Obama’s four-year term, Gates responded: “That would be a challenge.”

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