ISLAMABAD — U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Friday he was deeply impressed with Pakistan's military offensive against militants within its borders and said he will leave it to that country's leadership to decide whether or when to expand the fight.
"The Pakistani leadership will make its own decisions" about when or whether they are going to do something. "That's just fine with me," Gates said during an interview with Pakistani and U.S. journalists near the close of his two-day visit to the Pakistani capital.
Gates said he likens the U.S. and Pakistani discussions about the fight against militants on Pakistan's western border to an automobile. He said Pakistan was driving "and that's the way it should be."
Asked whether the U.S. was winning in the long battle against al-Qaida terrorism, Gates said the United States has made progress but hasn't won yet. He said al-Qaida and what he calls a syndicate of affiliated groups are less capable of large-scale, coordinated attacks than they once were and in many cases their leadership has been killed or captured.
That said, he called extremism a cancer that has metastasized from al-Qaida's home base along the Pakistan-Afghan border.
The U.S. has been pressing Pakistan to take more aggressive action against militants, but Pakistan's army said Thursday it cannot expand its current offensive for at least six months.
Remarks from the Army's chief spokesman during Gates' visit did not rule out the offensive the United States would like to see against militants who target U.S. forces in Afghanistan from hideouts in Pakistan. The Obama administration has taken a softer tone with Pakistan in recent months, praising the country's unprecedented assault on militants inside its borders and dropping public appeals for Pakistan to focus on the militants along its western border.
"We are not talking years," Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas told reporters traveling with Gates. "Six months to a year" would be needed before Pakistan could consolidate the gains it has made against militants in other parts of the country and then consider going further, he said.
"By a lot of hard work we brought public support on board," for campaigns last year in the Swat Valley and South Waziristan, he said.
U.S. officials appeared to accept Pakistan's rationale that it has limited military resources and cannot risk getting ahead of the public's acceptance for a campaign that involves killing fellow Muslims.
"We have to do this in a way that is comfortable for them, and at a pace that they can accommodate and is tolerable for them," Gates said ahead of meetings with Pakistani civilian and military leaders.
A Filipino militant wanted by the United States is believed to have been killed in an American drone strike close to the Afghan border earlier this month, Pakistani intelligence officials said Thursday.
If confirmed, the death of Abdul Basit Usman would represent another success for the U.S. covert missile program on targets in Pakistan. There have been an unprecedented number of attacks this month following a deadly Dec. 30 militant attack on a CIA base in Afghanistan.
U.S. officials do not often talk about the missile strikes or their targets, but they have in the past confirmed the deaths of several mid- and high-level al-Qaida and Taliban fighters.
Most of the missiles are fired from unmanned drone aircraft launched from Afghanistan.
Gates was asked about the drone program during an interview with local Express TV.
"I'm not going to discuss operations but I will say this: These unmanned aerial vehicles have been extremely useful to us, both in Iraq and in Afghanistan," he said.
Gates said he is expanding the program by buying more of the aircraft. He also said the United States was considering ways to share intelligence with the Pakistani military, including possibly giving it U.S.-made drones for intelligence and reconnaissance purposes.
U.S. officials said Gates was referring to a proposed deal for 12 unarmed Shadow aircraft. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive military cooperation.
In meetings Thursday with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, the country's army chief and others, Gates called the antiterror operations a success so far, "and he acknowledged to all of them that we realize that has come with a great deal of sacrifice for the military," Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said following the sessions.
"We are not trying to prescribe a timeline by which they must do things," Morrell said.
The Pakistani army launched a major ground offensive against the Pakistani Taliban's main stronghold near the Afghan border in mid-October, triggering a wave of retaliatory violence across the country that has killed more than 600 people.
Washington believes Pakistani pressure on militants staging cross-border attacks against coalition troops in Afghanistan is critical to success in Afghanistan as it sends an additional 30,000 troops to the country this year.