Lacking boots on the ground in Afghanistan, Washington’s reliance on Islamabad may now be greater than ever before.
When announcing the U.S. airstrike that killed Al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul, President Joe Biden paid tribute to America’s “allies and partners.” He didn’t provide any names, but it is safe to assume that one of them was Pakistan, a troublesome but long-standing counterterrorism partner for the United States in Afghanistan.
Islamabad has denied playing any sort of role in the operation, but it has usually denied involvement in CIA drone strikes in the past, even when the evidence clearly showed some form of secret approval and collaboration. There are a number of reasons why Pakistan almost certainly helped in this case, too.
The first is intelligence support. The United States once had a sizable intelligence footprint in Afghanistan, but it lost much of its coverage when U.S. troops withdrew last year. That means the CIA and other agencies have to rely more on local partners to gather intelligence, one of them being Pakistan’s powerful and notorious Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).
The ISI’s ties to the Taliban are old and deep. Washington has long worked with the service on Afghan issues, as anyone familiar with Steve Coll’s books will know. No sooner had Western troops left Afghanistan last year than the British and American spy chiefs jetted off to Islamabad, pointing to a greater Pakistani role in regional intelligence cooperation.
The ISI director was also in Washington as recently as May to meet his American counterpart. Moreover, Pakistani army chief Qamar Bajwa spoke to U.S. CENTCOM commander Gen. Michael Erik Kurilla just before the Zawahiri strike and called Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman to request help accessing International Monetary Fund bailout funds, raising suspicions of a quid pro quo.
A second reason for Pakistan’s likely involvement in this operation has to do with geography. The United States has a substantial drone infrastructure based in Qatar, and the quickest route for those aircraft to reach landlocked Afghanistan is through Pakistan. That is especially true for flights over Kabul, which is very close to the Pakistani border.
This is admittedly a long journey, reducing the amount of time drones have to loiter over their targets. But the United States has reportedly been using this flightpath for its operations in recent months. Last October, shortly after the withdrawal from Afghanistan, Washington was apparently trying to negotiate a formal agreement with Islamabad for use of its airspace.
It would be much easier for the United States if it had a permanent basing arrangement with Pakistan, but that does not appear to be the case. However, former CENTCOM commander Gen. Frank McKenzie reportedly told Congress last year that the United States had “launching points” in a neighboring country of Afghanistan, which could well point to the use of Pakistani bases.
Back in the day, Iran might have been an alternative route. In 2001, Tehran supported the initial American invasion of Afghanistan with targeting intelligence, for example. But relations between the two countries have subsequently soured, making any cooperation today extremely unlikely, especially with the future of the nuclear deal in question.
The final possibility would be to fly through Central Asia. But political conditions make this an undesirable option for the United States. The Central Asian states are under significant Russian influence, reducing the likelihood of cooperation with Washington, especially given the war in Ukraine. The Russian government has clearly stated that it would not accept American bases in Central Asia, and the new CENTCOM commander did not even discuss the issue of basing during a recent tour of the region. The Uzbek government has rejected a U.S. troop presence, while Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan both host Russian military facilities.
The Pakistani outlet Dawn tried to pass the buck by reporting, without evidence, that the drone which killed Zawahiri took off from Ganci airbase in Kyrgyzstan. The United States has operated a facility there in the past, but it was closed at Moscow’s behest after the annexation of Crimea in 2014, and there is no sign that the base has been reopened.
Pakistan is likely the only game in town. This wouldn’t be the first time that Islamabad has helped the United States go after Al Qaeda. It not only supported the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 but rounded up key terrorist figures like Khalid Sheikh Mohamed, even though Osama bin Laden himself was killed without the Pakistani government’s assistance.
Third, U.S.-Pakistan relations have improved in recent months, making counter-terrorism collaboration more likely. The new American ambassador, Donald Blome, was installed in Islamabad this summer, and there have been amicable visits by various high-ranking officials, including Special Representative Dilawar Syed, who tweeted enthusiastically about his trip.
The two countries are clearly trying to diversify their relationship away from the previous focus on security to include trade, healthcare, technology, and renewable energy. But, with the United States out of Afghanistan, Pakistan remains an important, albeit difficult, counterterrorism partner.
Moreover, Pakistan’s military has been working to mend fences with Washington after former Prime Minister Imran Khan accused the Biden administration of launching a ‘regime change’ operation to depose him by orchestrating a vote of no confidence and imposing an “imported government” earlier this year.
That Pakistan has not admitted its role in the Zawahiri strike is only to be expected. Proof of collusion with the United States would strengthen the hand of Imran Khan, who has often criticized Pakistani participation in American military operations. Indeed, Khan ally Shireen Mazari tweeted her concerns about the possible use of American drones in the country’s airspace.
Confirmation of Pakistan’s involvement could also fuel propaganda by terrorist groups like Islamic State Khorasan Province and Tehrik-i Taliban Pakistan, who view the Pakistani state as a slave of America. It would also exacerbate tensions with the Afghan Taliban.
Many expressed frustration with Pakistan’s role in the twenty-year Afghan conflict and must have hoped that the United States could finally hit delete on the relationship when the war ended. But Islamabad is now emerging as the closest thing the West has to a counterterrorism partner among Afghanistan’s immediate neighbors.
Rupert Stone is a freelance journalist working on issues related to South Asia and the Middle East. He has written for various publications, including Newsweek, VICE News, Al Jazeera, and The Independent.