It is confirmed that the US, while withdrawing from Afghanistan, wants to set up drone bases in the region for monitoring, engaging terrorist targets and supporting Afghan forces in their operations against the Taliban. Simultaneously, it is pushing for an agreement within Afghanistan, resulting in the establishment of a coalition government. It also intends to deny space to other terrorist groups, including al Qaeda and ISIS, from enhancing operations. Reports suggest that while the US is in talks with nations along Afghanistan’s borders, it prefers bases in Pakistan.
Pakistan had, in 2011, allowed the US to use its Shamsi air force base, claiming it was under operational control of the UAE and that permission was granted by them. Subsequently, the facility was closed but the US maintains overflight rights over Pakistan. Its recent airstrikes on Taliban targets have taken this route. The US’ adverserial relationship with Iran limits the choice for overflight to Pakistan. The US has engaged with Pakistan at different levels to convey its requirement for a base. Pakistan’s National Security Advisor, Moeed Yusuf, rushed to Geneva in the third week of May to discuss the American request for bases in Pakistan with his US counterpart, Jack Sullivan.
Media reports from Pakistan say that William Burns, the CIA director, made a secret visit in April, during which he held discussions for drone bases with the army chief, General Bajwa and DG ISI, Lt Gen Faiz Hameed. Pakistan described this visit as ‘discussions on counter-terrorism cooperation.’ Pakistan released inputs on Burns’ visit, only after an article appeared in the New York Times on 6 June, covering the secret visit. The article in the New York Times stated, “Pakistan placed a variety of restrictions in exchange for use of a base.”
Pakistan demanded approval of targets that would be engaged within Afghanistan in advance, which was unacceptable. Discussions for bases have been held between foreign ministers as also General Bajwa and the US defence secretary. Evidently, Pakistan is in a quandary over the US demands. Pakistan’s foreign minister, SM Qureshi, stated in the senate that the country would not permit foreign boots on its soil. In a TV interview last week he mentioned, “Search for bases could be their wish. There’s no question of giving them (US) bases, we have to see our interest.”
Similar comments have been made by other politicians. Two major factors impact Pakistan’s thinking. The first is displeasure from China and second is alienating the Taliban. A Taliban spokesperson had recently announced, “We urge neighbouring countries not to allow anyone to do so (granting a base) … If such a step is taken, it will be a great historic mistake and disgrace,” adding that the Taliban would “not remain silent in the face of such heinous and provocative acts.” Pakistan is already witnessing an independent Taliban which refuses to accept its diktats.
Reports of increased attacks on the Pakistan army in Baluchistan and Waziristan by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, an offshoot of the Taliban, continue to flow in. In case Pakistan provides a base, the Taliban could unleash more attacks, adding to security concerns. There is also frustration within the Pakistani hierarchy on the attitude of the Taliban, which escalates violence in Afghanistan while spurning offers for talks. Pakistan, for its own interests, does not desire a strong Taliban controlling Kabul on its own. Simultaneously, there are reasons for Pakistan to remain on the right side of Washington.
These include release of funds, military aid, support in global forums including FATF and IMF as also pushing India for talks on Kashmir. Further, in case Afghanistan moves towards civil war, the world would blame Pakistan. Hence, comments by Qureshi that Pakistan would not allow foreign boots on its soil appear solely for domestic consumption. Pakistan would never miss an opportunity to regain its toehold in Washington, while demanding its pound of flesh. Pakistan realizes benefits of being in Washington’s good books. President Biden ignored Pakistan after he assumed office.
This was evident when Pakistan was neither invited to the Global Climate summit, where Bangladesh and India were present, nor has he spoken to Imran Khan. Carrots in the form of lifting Pakistan from the Grey List of FATF, restoring military aid and better terms for IMF loans are possibly being dangled before Pakistan. Some hint of possible benefits was given when the Biden administration included military aid to Pakistan in its forthcoming budget demands to the Congress. Pakistan is aware that in case the US obtains bases elsewhere, its importance would recede as also it would be blamed for adverse fallouts in Afghanistan.
Once the US completes pull out, Pakistan’s relevance would decrease, though its strategic location will ensure that China and Russia continue remaining engaged with it. If Pakistan is dubbed as a China ally and US-China relations deteriorate, Pakistan could face greater US neglect. As a corollary, any base for the US will impact Pak-China relations, especially when China is Pakistan’s financial lifeline. Hence, Pakistan cannot take any decision involving the US without concurrence of China. For China, a US foothold in Pakistan implies enhanced monitoring of its CPEC projects, including its future naval base at Gwadar.
Within Pakistan, the anti-US clergy could enhance protests claiming the government is granting bases to the US to target Muslims in Afghanistan. This could embarrass the government. Alternatively, the US has bases in the Middle East which it could employ. However, they enhance flying time by almost five hours, impacting operational effectiveness. An alternative is to deploy aircraft carriers in the Arabian Sea as bases, but this is not a feasible, long-term option.
The US has operated from Pakistan earlier and hence would prefer bases there. Pakistan has to walk a tightrope. Refusing permission for bases could alienate the US leading to reduced support in global forums, apart from impacting military and developmental aid. Granting bases could anger China, the Taliban and its own clergy. The final call will be taken by Rawalpindi, possibly in consultation with China.
(The writer is a retired Major-General of the Indian Army)