The dilemma Pak faces The Statesman 15 Jun 2021 Maj Gen Harsha Kakar


The dilemma Pak faces The Statesman 15 Jun 2021

          It is confirmed that the US, while withdrawing from Afghanistan, are seeking 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 their territory. 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 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’s current adverse relationship with Iran limits their choice for overflight to Pakistan.

US has engaged with Pakistan at different levels to convey their requirement of a base. Pakistan’s National Security Advisor, Moeed Yusuf, rushed to Geneva, in the third week of May, to discuss US’s request for bases in Pakistan with his US counterpart, Jack Sullivan. Media reports from Pakistan mention William Burns, the CIA director, made a secret visit in Apr, during which he held discussions for drone bases with their army chief, General Bajwa and DG ISI, Lt Gen Faiz Hameed. Pak described this visit as ‘discussions on counter-terrorism cooperation.’ Pak released inputs on Burn’s visit, only after an article appeared in the New York Times, on 06 Jun, covering Burn’s secret visit to Pakistan.

The article in the New York Times, which broke the story, 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, Pak is in a quandary on US demands.

Pakistan’s foreign minister, SM Qureshi, stated in their senate that Pakistan 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 their diktats. Reports of increased attacks on the Pak army, in Baluchistan and Waziristan, by the Tehreek-e-Taliban, Pakistan, an offshoot of the Taliban, continue to flow. In case Pakistan provides a base, the Taliban could unleash more attacks, adding to security concerns. There is also frustration within the Pak hierarchy on the attitude of the Taliban, which enhances 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 global blame would be placed on Pakistan. Hence, comments by Qureshi stating that Pakistan would not allow foreign boots on its soil appears 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 since 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 Pak from the Grey List of FATF, restoring military aid and better terms for IMF loans are possibly slowly 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 drop, 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, Pak could face greater US neglect.   

As a corollary, any base to 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 Pak, 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 5 hours, impacting operational effectiveness. An alternate option is to deploy aircraft carriers in the Arabian Sea as bases, which is not a feasible long-term option. The US has operated from Pakistan earlier and hence would prefer bases there.
Pakistan has to walk the tightrope. Denying 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, implemented by Islamabad.