Unconfirmed reports about Pakistan providing the United States with military bases on its soil have been floating around as of late. At such a crucial time, when regional and global stakeholders are trying to find a solution to the Afghan conflict, such a Pakistani offer will complicate things for Islamabad. Pakistan’s past military engagements with the United States should serve as an eye-opener to help it make the right decision this time around.
At the height of the Cold War in the 1950s and 1960s, Pakistan had a substantial amount of military cooperation with the United States, receiving generous military assistance from the superpower. While the United States intended its military assistance to Pakistan for use against the communist threat, Pakistan sought to take advantage of its partnership to bolster its offensive and defensive capabilities vis-à-vis India.
No wonder in 1965, when the Indo-Pakistani war broke out, the United States imposed an arms embargo on both India and Pakistan. The arms embargo remained in place during the 1971 Indo-Pakistani War as well. Unlike India, Pakistan was dependent on U.S. arms, equipment, and spare parts; thus, the embargo impacted Pakistan’s military capability. Since the United States and Pakistan were pursuing different objectives, the military partnership was bound to end on a sad note for the one on the receiving end of the assistance.
Similarly, the U.S.-Pakistan “alliance” in the 1980s, when Pakistan signed up with the United States to bleed the Soviets in Afghanistan, ended on a sad note for Pakistan. After the U.S. objective was achieved and the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, the United States imposed sanctions on Pakistan for its nuclear program. The United States ignored all the challenges (millions of Afghan refugees, thousands of armed men and drugs in Pakistan, and civil war in Afghanistan) Pakistan was facing at the time. The United States then imposed more sanctions on Pakistan after it conducted its nuclear tests in May 1998.
The United States, however, was back with a list of demands for Pakistan after the 9/11 terror attacks. General Pervez Musharraf accepted all the U.S. demands regarding the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. Against all diplomatic protocols, Pakistan arrested and handed over Abdus Salam Zaeef, the Taliban ambassador in Islamabad, to the United States. From 2001 until U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan ended in late 2014, former Pakistani general Asad Durrani says, “Most of the U.S. military operations in Afghanistan were launched from Pasni and Dalbandin bases located on Baloch territory.”
General Musharraf used to act more hawkish than most American hawks. He repeatedly told Americans to hit the Pashtun tribes ruthlessly. He had allowed the CIA to operate drones in Pakistan as early as 2004. He even suggested that U.S. drones be painted in Pakistan Air Force colors, which the CIA refused. Pakistani diplomatic protests after every drone attack in Pakistan were orchestrated to placate a domestic audience, rather than serve as an actual condemnation of the attacks.
After Musharraf stepped down, his mantle and his demeanor were both passed onto Asif Ali Zardari, who, while referring to U.S. drone attacks in the tribal areas, told Americans to “kill the seniors, collateral damage worries you Americans. It does not worry me.” Well, collateral damage may not have worried Zardari and company, but since 2001 it has left a lasting scar on those impacted in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In fact, the so-called War on Terror, which Musharraf committed Pakistan to, brought more war and more terror to Pakistan and the region.
Allowing U.S. military bases on Pakistani soil raises several complications for Islamabad.
First, after the Taliban assume ascendancy in Afghanistan, any strikes on Afghanistan from Pakistani territory by the United States will further strain Afghanistan-Pakistan bilateral relations and dash any and all hopes of good neighborly relations for the foreseeable future. Afghanistan and Pakistan are at a crossroads of history. They can either reach a mutual understanding regarding all their outstanding issues, preferably within the framework of a strategic agreement, or continue with tension in bilateral relations, entailing negative consequences for both countries.
Pakistan wants to expand commercial and energy ties with Central Asian republics through Afghanistan. Since the early 1990s, Pakistan’s aspirations to trade with Central Asia have been upset by, and remained unfulfilled due to, the conflict in Afghanistan. Pakistan can only be directly linked with Central Asia if there is stability in Afghanistan, and if Afghanistan-Pakistan ties are warm. The United States once again bombing Afghanistan from military bases in Pakistan will pour cold water on any prospects of improved bilateral relations.
Second, if the United States bombs Afghanistan from Pakistani military bases, regardless of who will be in power in Kabul, Afghanistan will most likely respond to these provocations by deepening and expanding ties with India. The Taliban have already declared that “Kashmir is India’s internal matter” and called on Pakistan not to link Afghanistan with Kashmir. Once the Taliban are back in Kabul and tensions rise with Islamabad, it is very likely that the Taliban will develop cordial ties with India, following in the footsteps of the Afghan Mujahedin.
It largely depends on Pakistan whether or not the Taliban strengthen its ties with India. So far, the much exaggerated Indian presence in Afghanistan is modest in scope and certainly is less significant than Pakistan’s own presence and assets in Afghanistan. That being said, there’s a serious potential for further developing and exploring Indo-Afghan ties. Given that India is interested in Balochistan, should the present illusory Indo-Afghan collusion materialize, it can destabilize Pakistan and pose a serious challenge to the Chinese-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
Third, Pakistan is also very likely to experience complications in its relations with its two other neighbors, namely China and Iran, if it provides the United States with military bases on its soil. As Pakistan observers rightly believe, China certainly will not be comfortable with U.S. planes and drones flying around when it is investing in Pakistan and trying to complete the CPEC. Iran will also view the U.S. military presence in Pakistan as a U.S. attempt to encircle it. In response, Iran will likely support anti-U.S. elements in Pakistan which in the medium to long run will also have consequences for Pakistan’s Sunni-Shia sectarian divide.
Fourth, the U.S. military presence in Pakistan will help the further rise of religious extremism, where extremists are already in no short supply. The U.S. military presence will encourage militant and terrorist groups such as the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) to step up its attacks on government facilities and personnel as legitimate targets for collaborating with the United States. Religious parties will also exploit such a development to embarrass and weaken the civilian government.
Fifth and finally, given that the United States lacks popular support amongst ordinary Pakistanis, the Pakistani government will also have to sacrifice its popularity and possibly its time in office should it decide to offer the United States military bases. In 2014, after the Palestinian territories, Pakistanis disapproved of and hated the United States more than any other country in the world. The cost for Pakistan of U.S. military bases on its soil simply outweighs any benefits that might be associated with it.
Lessons for the future
At this critical juncture in the region’s history, Pakistan must learn from its past military partnerships with the United States, which will once again abandon Pakistan as soon as its objectives are achieved. Partnerships and alliances are built on firm grounds of mutual interest and shared values. The long and troubled history of U.S.-Pakistani relations suggests that their partnerships were neither rooted in mutual interest nor in shared values. The partnerships were rather temporary affairs and broke apart as soon as the external factor bringing the two countries together was removed.
Pakistan’s concern, if any, that India will step forward and provide military bases to the United States is unfounded and unjustified. India has no borders with Afghanistan. If India offers the U.S. military bases, the latter will still require overflight rights from Pakistan. As a sovereign and responsible nation, Pakistan must say no to any requests from the United States for overflight rights to bomb Afghanistan from India or any other country. Acquiescing to such U.S. demands will also go against countless official statements by both Afghanistan and Pakistan to not allow their respective territory to be used against each other.
Arwin Rahi is a former adviser to the Parwan governor in Afghanistan. He can be reached at [email protected].