WASHINGTON, May 4, 2009 – The recent push by Taliban forces to take more ground in Pakistan has served as a wake-up call for the government there, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said today. In a broad-ranging interview with CNN that aired today, Gates said he feels the Pakistani leaders now realize that the Taliban is an existential threat there.

“We and others have been talking with them about how what is happening there in the western frontier area is truly an existential threat to democratic government in Pakistan,” Gates said. “And I think the movement of the Taliban into Buner really got their attention.”

Last month, the Taliban seized control of Buner, in the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan, causing alarm as it moved within only about 60 miles of the capital city of Islamabad.

It is feared that al-Qaida could also use the border areas of Pakistan to launch attacks against coalition forces in Afghanistan.

Pakistan has long focused on India to its east as its main threat, Gates said, with little regard for the largely ungoverned western front.

“I think that … they’ve always felt that if it really got serious, it was a problem they could take care of,” Gates said. “That’s why I think the movement of the Taliban so close to Islamabad was a real wake-up call for them.”

Gates said he believes Pakistan is now starting to develop its military capacity to fight a counterinsurgency, and the United States is willing to share equipment and training. But, he said, there has been reluctance on the part of the Pakistani government up to this point to accept much help.

“They don’t like the idea of a significant American military footprint inside Pakistan. I understand that,” Gates said. “But we are willing to do pretty much whatever we can to help the Pakistanis in this situation.”

Gates said there are a small number of U.S. military advisors in Pakistan helping to train the Pakistani military on counterinsurgency operations.

Speaking on Afghanistan, Gates said there could be a spike in violence as the U.S. military moves thousands more troops into the southern region. But, he said, the Taliban may not be prepared to take on a larger military force toe-to-toe and instead may choose to leave and return later.

The key will be to hold areas that have been cleared of the Taliban, he said.

“The people are going to be ambivalent as long as they can’t tell who’s going to win,” Gates said. “They’re going to try and not take sides, because they’re afraid that once we leave, the Taliban will come in and kill them.”

Gates said the U.S. must work to grow and train the Afghan security forces so they can establish an enduring presence in the small villages and districts that dot the country.

And, Gates said, the Afghan government has to increase its capabilities down to the district level.

“This is where I think development programs and assistance are more likely to actually happen, and for school rooms to be built, for roads to be built, for wells to be dug, … where the people can actually see government, … it may not be the national government, but the provincial government or the district government actually delivering a service and improving the quality of life,” Gates said.

Strengthening the civilian capabilities at the provincial level, part of the administration’s new strategy, will also play a key role in delivering those much-needed services, he said.

“We have to make the provincial reconstruction teams much more robust, with civilian experts, so we can begin to help the Afghans deliver these kinds of services,” the secretary said. “I think, at the end of the day, that, plus the increased effectiveness and strength of the army and the police, are really the pathway forward.”

Gates said that he likely would not recommend sending more U.S. troops to Afghanistan. Once the troops that President Obama ordered there earlier this year are on the ground, there will be nearly 100,000 U.S. and partner nation troops there. Gates said it would be better to focus on building the capacity of Afghan forces so the U.S. military is not viewed as an occupying force.

“It is absolutely critical that the Afghans believe that this is their war. It is their war against people who are trying to overthrow their government that they democratically elected,” he said. “We must be their partner and their ally. If we get to the point where the Afghan people see us as occupiers, then we will have lost.”

Gates spoke highly of the political progress made in Iraq, despite the recent spikes in violence. He said that, for the most part, the violence is seen as al-Qaida working to undermine the gains there.

“There’s no question that the roots of democracy are still very shallow in Iraq. But there’s been a lot of progress,” Gates said. “And I don’t think there are very many Iraqis who want to return to the kind of violence that they saw in 2006. So I think this is mainly al-Qaida.”

In the interview, Gates was also asked about President Obama’s vision for a nuclear weapons-free world. Gates said that while it would be a “long march” toward the goal, it is a laudable objective.

Gates said that continued nonproliferation efforts, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, another post-START agreement with the Russians, and further reducing America’s stockpile of nuclear weapons are all important steps.

Gates defended both the U.S. military budget and its involvements globally and said he did not feel the United States was becoming an imperial power.

“Well, if we are an imperial power, we are a unique one in history in that we are the only one in history that has – is always looking for an exit strategy,” he said.

Gates said that the United States has global interests, and the defense budget is not a burden on the economy. Gates called the United States an “indispensable power.”

“This is about how the United States exercises global leadership,” Gates said. “And being willing to listen, as well as to talk, is important in that regard.”

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