Image: Robert Gates in Pakistan
Master Sgt. Jerry Morrison  /  U.S. Air Force via AP
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates attending a wreath laying ceremony with Pakistani Army Chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani at the G.H.Q Headquarters in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, Thursday.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 1/22/2010 6:28:45 AM ET 2010-01-22T11:28:45

The Taliban is part of Afghanistan's "political fabric," Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Friday.

During a visit to Pakistan, Gates questioned whether leaders of the Islamist movement were “prepared to play a legitimate role” in the neighboring country's future.

"The Taliban, we recognize, are part of the political fabric of Afghanistan at this point," Gates told AFP. "The question is whether they are prepared to play a legitimate role in the political fabric of Afghanistan going forward, meaning participating in elections, meaning not assassinating local officials and killing families."

The Taliban has been waging a deadly insurgency against the Afghan government and foreign troops since a U.S.-led invasion ousted the regime from power in late 2001.

Gates also addressed Pakistani military officers during his visit, saying that the U.S. seeks no military bases in the country and has no desire to control Pakistan's nuclear arsenal.

"The United States does not covet a single inch of Pakistani soil," Gates said.

He addedthat fighting terrorists along the Afghan border is in Pakistan's interest as well as Washington's.

"We have enemies in common along the border, but we also have many other interests in common," Gates said, and the Pakistani military has choices to make about its resources and focus just as the U.S. armed forces have done.

'Propaganda campaign'
Addressing the legacy of mistrust and what he called an "organized propaganda campaign" to misrepresent U.S. intentions, Gates used carefully calibrated phrasing to tick off some of the allegations against the United States in wide circulation in Pakistan.

"I fully understand why some of you may be skeptical about the U.S. commitment to Pakistan," Gates told officers at Pakistan's National Defense University.

Many in his audience came of professional age in the 1990s, when the United States had cut off military ties to Pakistan and largely ignored the growth of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

The United States wants Pakistan to take on Taliban militants who use its territory as a refuge, but Gates' rhetoric on the subject during two days of talks in the Pakistani capital was notably mild.

He said he was deeply impressed with Pakistan's military offensive against militants within its borders.

"The leadership will make the 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.

Softer tone
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.

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.

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.

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 said Thursday it cannot expand its offensive against militants for at least six months , after time to consolidate gains made against militants who primarily target Pakistan. Remarks from the Army's chief spokesman did not rule out the offensive that would more directly benefit the United States.

"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 farther, he said.

Msnbc.com staff and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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