Of late, Pakistan has taken a very important policy decision regarding its relations with the United States of America in the unfolding situation in Afghanistan that it would not provide military bases to Washington to ensure its presence in the region. The US reportedly has requested Pakistan to provide bases to it on its soil, so that after the complete withdrawal of the US forces from Afghanistan, Washington could play its “stabilising” role in Afghanistan and the entire region. On its part, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan has unequivocally stated that there is no question of giving any base to the US military in Pakistan.
Pakistan’s argument against giving the US military bases on its soil can be deciphered from the words of PM Imran Khan during his interview to an American media outlet aired on June 21. PM Imran Khan during the interview said that as the US and its allies could not defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan despite remaining on Afghan soil for two decades, then what was the point of giving them (US troops) bases in Pakistan? Moreover, providing military bases to Washington in Pakistan would result in large-scale terrorist attacks by the Afghan Taliban and their allies on its soil. It would exactly be the case because the American military presence in Pakistan would be considered as Islamabad’s betrayal with the Taliban after almost two-and-a-half decades of support to the militants. As the Taliban have the potential to get a lion’s share in any future government in Afghanistan, Pakistan would ill-afford to provide bases to Americans, against whom the Taliban have fought for over two decades.
More importantly and disturbingly for Pakistan, American military bases on its soil in the unfolding situation in the region would not be liked at all by Islamabad’s closest ally, China. Then, Iran would also not like any American military presence in its neighbourhood. Iran fears that any military presence of the US in the region is aimed at fomenting unrest on its territory, particularly the Sunni-dominant Sistan-Balochistan province of Iran on its border with Pakistan. Iran has accused the American intelligence agencies of nurturing the anti-Iran Jandullah group. However, it is also a fact that Kulbhshan Jadhav was caught in Pakistani Balochistan as he entered from contiguous Iranian territory. Russia, with whom the US has been engaged in a kind of a propaganda war since 2013 after Moscow’s capturing of Crimea and posing a threat to the US-Western ally, would also not like Pakistan to give military bases which the US might use against it. Ukraine historically has the strongest claim to disputed Crimea. So, none of Pakistani neighbours, except India, would like US bases established in Pakistan. On its part, Delhi would like American bases on Pakistani soil so that its rival regional power, China, could be countered, the Taliban may be prevented from completely overrunning Afghanistan and problems are created for Pakistan.
In the 1950s, when the US established its military bases in Peshawar at the Badaber Airbase, American reconnaissance aircraft would spy on the erstwhile Soviet Union. It was revealed when a US spy plane was shot down over the Soviet airspace in 1959 and its pilot, John Powers, was captured by Soviet forces after he safely ejected the shot plane. Powers told the Soviet military authorities that he had flown from the US-controlled airbase in Peshawar, Pakistan. After that the then Soviet leader, Khurushev, while at the height of the Cold War decided to blow up Peshawar. However, after a US threat, it stopped attacking the city. These are the lessons which Pakistan has learnt over the years. Therefore, PM Imran Khan has rightly refused to give military bases to the US on its soil.
It is also important to note that the US may want a military presence in Pakistan, to keep a vigilant eye on Chinese infrastructure development and even military activities. The US already has a strong presence in the South China Sea and the Sea of Japan which are considered backwaters by the Chinese. So any presence of the US in the West and South of China in Pakistan would be of great value to Washington efforts to keep a keen eye on China. As Beijing has been investing heavily in Pakistan, mostly in infrastructure development projects of around $70 billion under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), Pakistan would be naïve to allow China’s strategic competitor, the US, any military presence on its soil. In the circumstances, Pakistan’s refusal to provide military bases on its soil to the US is a logical decision.
However, on its part, Washington, being the superpower and the only real great power of the contemporary era, has every right to demand from Pakistan to cooperate with it militarily. As a great power, the US would definitely want to pursue its global interests, whether it is to keep a check on the economic and military activities of China or the nuclear programme of Iran, or to give a strong message to the Russians of its presence in its nearby region. The US has been a key player in the South Asian region for the last 80 years and it has fought the longest war of its history in Afghanistan, which is going to end in September. On its part, Pakistan may be absolutely right that military bases to US forces would earn Islamabad the wrath of the Afghan Taliban and their Pakistani sympathisers. However, on its part, Washington is logically justified in demanding bases on Pakistani soil to stop Afghanistan from descending into total chaos. The Afghan Taliban have been demanding of Washington that no meaningful talks could be held with the Americans without a commitment of withdrawal of all troops from Afghanistan. The Taliban remained steadfast and uncompromising in the demand, compelling former US President Donald Trump to give in, paving the way for the US-Taliban agreement of February 2020, under which Washington had to withdraw all its forces from Afghanistan by May. However, new US President Joe Biden, making a slight change in the agreement, extended the pullout date to September.
The post-US withdrawal period would change the dynamics of US-Pakistan relations. In order to better serve the interest of both countries it is advisable that they change the focus of their relations from Afghanistan. Moreover, if the Americans really and critically need bases in Pakistan, the latter should consider it after diplomatic engagements with China, Iran and Russia. Islamabad should only focus its national interests without trying to appease any country.