Washington is looking to maintain a counterterrorism infrastructure in the region following its withdrawal from Afghanistan. Officials from both sides, including U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, confirmed that Pakistan and the U.S. have held talks on the matter. While Sullivan stressed that discussions have been constructive, Pakistani interlocutors have ostensibly refused to host drone bases for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
In response to a flurry of speculations regarding the prospect of Islamabad giving military bases to the United States, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi categorically stated Pakistan would not give any military base to the United States. He went on to say Pakistan would look after its own interests, indicating that granting basing rights to the U.S. is not considered advantageous.
While the precipitous withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan will likely compel Washington to repeatedly cajole Islamabad to revisit its stand on the issue, Pakistan will likely not succumb to U.S. inducements and pressures. There are three factors that will account for Pakistan’s perseverance and inflexibility on extending basing rights to the United States.
First, the consistency with which Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan has vociferously opposed his country’s past dealings with Washington has left little room for his government to acquiesce to U.S. requests. Before coming into power, Khan was a staunch critic of U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, even launching a campaign against them. However, Khan’s criticisms were not merely directed toward the United States and its high-handed behavior – 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 U.S.
It is noteworthy that, even after taking the reins, Khan has time and again stressed the need for having a balanced and mutually beneficial relationship with the United States. Also, Khan has reaffirmed that Pakistan would only become a U.S. partner in peace going forward. With Khan having taken such maximalist positions in his policy toward Washington, his government giving the U.S. basing rights, which could pave the way for kinetic action from and on Pakistani soil, will be politically very damaging for him. Such a drastic change of tack may not only turn public opinion against Khan but also raise many a question on his ability and power to call the shots in the foreign policy and security domains. This, in turn, would undercut Khan’s “same-page” mantra regarding civil-military relations. High-ranking Pakistani officials, including Qureshi and National Security Advisor Moeed Yusuf, have also alluded to Khan’s well-known approach to the war on terror and Pakistan-U.S. relations as one of the principal factors that make it rather impossible for Pakistan to commit to hosting U.S. bases. With all this in mind, an about-turn by the premier will be costlier than ever.
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Second, 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. Pakistan can ill-afford to attenuate its relationship with the Taliban because it is becoming abundantly clear that they are the most dominant player in the Afghan political landscape. Capturing district after district since the announcement of U.S. troop withdrawal, the Taliban look well-poised to emerge as the ruling power in Kabul. 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.
Having already warned Afghanistan’s neighbors against making the historic mistake of allowing the U.S. to operate military bases, the Taliban would certainly not welcome Pakistan taking such a step. They could accuse Pakistan of wilting under U.S. 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. With Pakistan 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 oneself in the foot. In other words, Pakistan will seek to avoid being seen as an actor doing Washington’s bidding.
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Third, Pakistan allowing the U.S. to use military bases for carrying out combat missions will likely be a cause of concern for two of Pakistan’s neighbors: China and Iran. That both countries are adversaries of the United States is all the more troubling. Washington has termed Beijing the biggest threat to U.S. national security. Coupled with the U.S. aversion to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), this mean that should Pakistan allow U.S. 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 U.S. physically lurking around CPEC hotspots, including the critical Gwadar port.
Other than China, Iran will also be directly affected if Pakistan were to let the U.S. ensconce itself in close proximity to that country. Should Pakistan commit to giving bases to the U.S., 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 U.S. 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.
Thus, Pakistan letting the United States use its bases will only add to the country’s tally of external security concerns and internal political tussles. At a time when Pakistan is looking to jump on the geoeconomics bandwagon, this is exactly what it cannot afford.