A Turning Point in Pak-US Relations
Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan has vociferously opposed his country’s past dealings with the United States. Before coming into power, Khan was a staunch critic of US drone strikes in Pakistan, even launching a campaign against them. However, his criticism was not merely directed toward the United States and its high-handed behaviour; he also lambasted successive Pakistani governments for what he considered selfish, interest-based connivance with Washington. Therefore, in his enunciations before assuming power, Khan had vowed to fight the war on terror without being perceived as an appendage of the US.
Now as Washington is looking to maintain a counterterrorism infrastructure in the post-withdrawal Afghanistan, Pakistani authorities have refused to host bases for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Prime Minister Khan is adamant that Pakistan will not provide the US any bases or assistance in counterterrorism operations. In an op-ed, published in the Washington Post, PM Khan wrote: “Pakistan is ready to be a partner for peace in Afghanistan with the United States — but as US troops withdraw, we will avoid risking further conflict … Our country has suffered so much from the wars in Afghanistan. More than 70,000 Pakistanis have been killed. While the United States provided $20 billion in aid, losses to the Pakistani economy have exceeded $150 billion. Tourism and investment dried up. After joining the US effort, Pakistan was targeted as a collaborator, leading to terrorism against our country from the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan and other groups. US drone attacks, which I warned against, didn’t win the war, but they did create hatred for Americans, swelling the ranks of terrorist groups against both our countries.”
The principal reasons why PM Khan has clearly said that Pakistan will not give its bases to the US for operations in Afghanistan after the latter’s troops’ withdrawal are as follows:
1. PM Khan has argued for years that there was no military solution in Afghanistan. He has been a strong critic of all previous Pakistani governments as he maintains that they all worked under US pressure, made important policy concessions, and refrained from making a clear choice in matters relating to the Pakistan-US relations. So, the consistency with which he has opposed the past dealings with Washington has left little room for him to acquiesce to US requests. He denounces as “idiocy” his country’s past policy of becoming a “front-line state” in the US-led war against terrorism in Afghanistan, blaming the policy for the persistent security and economic challenges facing Islamabad.
2. If Pakistan were to agree to host US bases, from which to bomb Afghanistan, and an Afghan civil war ensued, the country would be targeted for revenge by terrorists again. As Khan asserts, “We simply cannot afford this. We have already paid too heavy a price. Meanwhile, if the United States, with the most powerful military machine in history, couldn’t win the war from inside Afghanistan after 20 years, how would America do it from bases in our country?” Moreover, Pakistan aiding the United States in its efforts to keep an eye on the Taliban would likely vitiate the country’s ties with the powerful Afghan group because it is becoming vividly clear that they will be the most dominant player in the future Afghan political landscape. In addition, Pakistan has suffered a lot for its support to extra-regional forces for operations inside Afghanistan. Therefore, it has decided very wisely to declare that there is ‘absolutely no’ chance that it will provide any space to external forces for any kind of military operations inside Afghanistan from Pakistani soil.
3. Currently, Taliban are expanding their control over more and more areas of Afghanistan, and it is no less than a writing on the wall that they will hold power in the future political setup of the country. In such a milieu, Pakistan appearing to help the United States retain combat and surveillance capabilities meant to be used against the Taliban and other groups would not go down well with the Taliban. In a recent statement, Taliban ‘urged’ “neighbouring countries not to allow anyone to [allow the United States to operate military bases on their soil] … [i]f such a step is taken again, it will be a great and historic mistake and disgrace.” So, the Taliban would certainly not welcome Pakistan taking such a step. They could accuse Pakistan of wilting under US pressure. The ill-will that could emanate from strained Pakistan-Taliban ties could hurt Pakistan’s core interests, especially those that relate to the presence of terrorist safe havens in Afghanistan. If Islamabad is seen as a veritable linchpin of Washington’s over-the-horizon counterterrorism scaffold, the Taliban could go on to encourage inimical outfits to target Pakistan. Pakistan is establishing an inexorable linkage between the prospect of bolstering regional connectivity and peace in Afghanistan, eliciting the Taliban’s unfriendliness would be tantamount to shooting itself in the foot. In other words, Pakistan will seek to avoid being seen as an actor doing Washington’s bidding.
4. If Pakistan allows the US to use military bases for carrying out combat missions, it will likely be a cause of concern for two of Pakistan’s neighbours: China and Iran — both the adversaries of the United States. Washington has termed Beijing the biggest threat to US national security. Coupled with the US aversion to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), this means that should Pakistan allow US forces to operate out of its territory, Washington would almost certainly use that advantage to keep tabs on CPEC, which is expected to expand and gain momentum. Both Pakistan and China would not like to see the US physically lurking around CPEC hotspots, including the critical Gwadar port. Other than China, Iran will also be directly affected if Pakistan allows the US to ensconce itself close to that country. Should Pakistan commit to giving bases to the US, not only will Khan’s bid to reset ties with Iran be discredited but also his role as a mediator in the conflicts involving Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the US will be questioned. Additionally, Pakistan’s delicate balancing act in the Middle East will be disturbed, something which would present a plethora of challenges laden with grievous security implications for Pakistani policymakers to contend with.
5. In his Washington Post article, PM Khan reminded the United States that “Our country has suffered so much from the wars in Afghanistan. More than 70,000 Pakistanis have been killed. While the United States provided $20 billion in aid, losses to the Pakistani economy have exceeded $150 billion. Tourism and investment dried up. After joining the US effort, Pakistan was targeted as a collaborator, leading to terrorism against our country from the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan and other groups. US drone attacks, which I warned against, didn’t win the war, but they did create hatred for Americans, swelling the ranks of terrorist groups against both our countries. … There are more than 3 million Afghan refugees in our country — if there is further civil war, instead of a political settlement, there will be many more refugees, destabilizing and further impoverishing the frontier areas on our border.” So, no recognition of Pakistan’s sacrifices is also a source of public anger in Pakistan. PM Khan has echoed this sentiment and it is another prime reason why he will not allow US bases on Pakistani soil.
6. Given the American reach out to India as a defence and strategic partner, Pakistan’s reliance on the US over the last many years has become doubtful and no more reliable to seek strategic military backing against the Indian threat. Therefore, to keep the country’s own security situation in balance, Pakistan had to look up to China as well as warming up its relations with Russia. Moscow and Beijing have already worked with Iran. One has partnered with it in the battlefield in Syria while the other has agreed to provide $400 billion as an economic aid to Iran during the next 25 years. So if one regional power is acting as the economic guarantor for the regional stakeholders and the other as the security grantor, there is all the possibility of creation of conditions on ground which can encourage outside participation to rebuild Afghanistan under not a unipolar but multipolar arrangement.
The one big reality looking in our face is that post-withdrawal Afghanistan and our denial to support even the smallest of US counterterrorism footprint to support its deep engagement in Afghanistan has finally prepared us to look to the other side and free ourselves from the US dominance. The other side is the emerging era of global multipolarity in which China and Russia are positioning themselves as its leading regulators and architects. The ‘absolutely not’ comment of the PM clearly spells out an emerging Pakistan’s great desire that it wants the world to treat it on no other basis but sovereign equality.
The writer is a PhD scholar (English Literature). He can be reached at email@example.com