Is Biden Demanding Use of Pakistani Military Bases After Pullout From Afghanistan?
When President Joseph R. Biden announced his decision to withdraw all US troops from Afghanistan, he said: "We will ask other countries in the region to support Afghanistan, especially Pakistan, as well as Russia, China, India and Turkey." Biden has also talked about the US reorganizing its counterterrorism capabilities in the region to be able to hit the target from “over the horizon.” These discussions have triggered speculations about the Biden administration seeking access to military bases in Pakistan to target the Taliban after total US pullout from Afghanistan. Such speculations are strengthened by what Biden said in a Democratic Primary debate on September 12, 2019: "We can prevent the United States from being the victim of terror coming out of Afghanistan by providing airbases and insisting the Pakistanis provide bases for us”. There's even talk of possibly escalating US military operations in Afghanistan from bases in Pakistan.
Responding to a question on the subject of "drone strikes and air strikes" asked in an interview by Voice of America's Ayesha Tanzeem, President Arif Alvi said: "I’m not aware, and I don’t think Pakistan will be in a position to offer that".
Alvi's response has not diminished the ongoing speculation about Pakistan helping US military's counterinsurgency ops in Afghanistan. Nick Reynolds, an analyst at the London-based think tank Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), has written a piece on it which brings in the United Kingdom helping the United States persuade Pakistan to allow the use of its territory to launch air strikes in Afghanistan. Here's an excerpt of Reynolds' article:
"Ultimately, counterterrorism operations will have to continue in the region, and the US, UK and NATO will be further entangled in Pakistani diplomatic affairs as a result. There is a risk that the UK and NATO, if they wish to support the US, will only be able to do so by striking into Afghanistan from basing in neighboring countries, effectively a continuation of one of the current lines of effort that the Biden administration is attempting to terminate, except with the bases moved across the Pakistani border. The US, UK and NATO may even end up seriously escalating combat operations in Afghanistan in some form in future, either to prevent the Afghan government from falling or to address Taliban support for terrorist networks if they are allowed to take power. The Biden administration seeks to end the ‘forever war’ by withdrawing. However, given the ongoing situation with Islamist terrorism globally, the forever war looks instead as if it is transitioning into a new and dangerous phase in which the UK and NATO will be forced to play a continuing role".
Back on September 12, 2019, Candidate Biden talked about seeking bases in Pakistan during the third Democratic Primary Presidential debate. Here's what he said then:
"The whole purpose of going to Afghanistan was to not have a counterinsurgency, meaning that we're going to put that country together. It cannot be put together. Let me say it again. It will not be put together. It's three different countries. Pakistan owns the three counties -- the three provinces in the east. They're not any part of -- the Haqqanis run it. I will go on and on. But here's the point. The point is that it's a counterterrorism strategy. We can prevent the United States from being the victim of terror coming out of Afghanistan by providing for bases -- insist the Pakistanis provide bases for us to air lift from and to move against what we know. We don't need those troops there. I would bring them home".
Should Pakistan yield to western pressure yet again as it did after 911? Pakistan has paid a very heavy price for working with the United States in the last two decades. Tens of thousands of Pakistanis have died in attacks launched by groups opposed to US-Pakistan cooperation. Pakistan's economy has suffered hundreds of billions of dollars of losses. And yet, Pakistan continues to be accused of double-dealing. Pakistani civilian and military leaders will undoubtedly face very strong internal opposition to the use of Pakistani territory for any US military operations in Afghanistan.
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Austin's conversation with General Qamar Javed Bajwa came as the last remaining 2,500 or so U.S. troops were preparing to begin pulling out of Afghanistan. The withdrawal, which starts Saturday and is to end by September 11, is intended to conclude America's longest war.
The Pentagon said Austin "expressed appreciation" for Pakistan's support for Afghan peace negotiations and "reaffirmed the importance" of Washington's relationship with Islamabad.
A readout of the conversation said the two leaders talked about the importance of regional stability and the desire for the United States and Pakistan to continue working together on "shared goals and objectives in the region."
The Pakistani military's media wing quoted Bajwa as telling Austin that peace in Afghanistan "means peace in Pakistan."
The general reiterated that his country would "always support [an] Afghan-led, Afghan-owned peace process based on mutual consensus of all stakeholders."
The withdrawal of American forces and around 7,000 NATO troops is in line with a year-old agreement Washington negotiated with the Taliban.
Key role in talks
Pakistan, which has been accused of harboring insurgent sanctuaries, is credited with arranging the U.S.-Taliban talks that culminated in the signing of the agreement on February 29, 2020.
The deal encouraged the Taliban to open peace talks last September in Qatar with Afghan government negotiators, though the process has long been deadlocked and has largely failed to reduce deadly violence.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the American chief peace negotiator, told lawmakers in Washington on Tuesday that the U.S. administration had urged Pakistani leaders to exercise their "considerable leverage" over the Taliban to reduce violence and support a negotiated settlement to the conflict.
"Pakistan has a special responsibility given its influence over the Taliban, so we appreciate what Pakistan has done so far," Khalilzad told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
"But we are not there yet, and of course we look forward to working with them to get to a peace agreement between the Taliban and the Afghan government in the coming weeks and months," the U.S. envoy said.
The troop withdrawal from Afghanistan was supposed to be completed by May 1, as stipulated in the U.S.-Taliban deal. But U.S. President Joe Biden, while announcing the final drawdown plans earlier this month, cited logistical reasons for not meeting the deadline.
The 10-day Istanbul conference was supposed to start on April 24, but the Taliban's refusal forced the organizers to postpone it.
Meanwhile, senior officials from Russia, the U.S., China and Pakistan will reportedly meet on Friday to discuss ways to advance intra-Afghan peace talks.
"We will be discussing solutions to the current situation in the intra-Afghan negotiations. We will be trying to work out a common position to give an impetus for the talks to take place," Zamir Kabulov, Russian presidential envoy for Afghanistan, told the Tass news agency.
Kabulov did not say where the huddle would take place, but last month Moscow hosted envoys from the four nations, together with delegates of the Taliban and the Afghan government. They pressed the two warring parties to restart their stalled talks but were unsuccessful.
A bipartisan bill will soon be introduced in the US Senate to set up duty-free export zones along the Pak-Afghan border, says a senior US lawmaker.
The proposed legislation will allow these trade pockets, known as the Reconstruction Opportunity Zones or ROZs, to export certain duty-free goods to the United States, said Senator Van Hollen, a key Democrat on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.
Mr Van Hollen told a full committee hearing on the US policy in Afghanistan on Tuesday that elements within the Biden administration already support this proposal.
The Karachi-born US lawmaker also urged President Joe Biden to resume the US-Pakistan dialogue by calling Prime Minister Imran Khan because the US needs Pakistan’s support to end the Afghan conflict. He told the key witness, Zalmay Khalilzad, that he too had acknowledged Pakistan’s importance in resolving this dispute in previous statements.
Ambassador Khalilzad, a Trump appointee retained by the Biden administration as a special US representative, too recognised Pakistan’s “special role” in facilitating peace talks and backed Senator Van Hollen’s call for re-engaging Pakistan.
In 2009, the US House of Representatives passed a bill to establish ROZs in Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan. Mr Biden too had backed this legislation, which was never implemented.
“We will be reintroducing that as a bipartisan bill soon,” Senator Van Hollen told the committee, adding that he believed increased trade in this region would contribute to peace.
“This would be a condition-based tool that the president of the United State will have the authority to calibrate, based on conditions on the ground,” he added.
“Is it the kind of tool that you believe could be useful in shaping some of the decisions about the future of Afghanistan?” he asked Ambassador Khalilzad.
“We support the idea of increased trade between Afghanistan and Pakistan, between Afghanistan and Pakistan and Central Asia, and we support increased trade between us and Afghanistan and Pakistan,” the envoy responded. “It seems to me that it is a very worthwhile concept to explore and work on.”
“I know other parts of the administration are looking at it as a positive tool that we can deploy in trying to shape the future of this region,” the senator said, adding that the proposed bill would soon go to the Senate Finance Committee.
The senator then engaged Ambassador Khalilzad in a discussion over Pakistan’s role in the Afghan conflict, pointing out that “the country that has the most direct, potential influence here is Pakistan.”
He reminded Mr Khalilzad that he too has acknowledged Pakistan’s importance, calling it a country that “has direct interest in stability in Afghanistan” and reasons to dislike “chaos and a full-blown war there.”
“Of course, Pakistan fought its own war with the Pakistani Taliban, did it not?” the senator asked. “It did,” Mr Khalilzad replied.
“You have pointed out that Pakistan has helped to facilitate your negotiations with the Taliban in Doha, is that right?” Senator Van Hollen asked again. “It has,” the envoy said.
“How would you characterise Pakistan’s support now?” the senator asked.
“They have been supportive of our efforts to press the Taliban to reduce violence, to enter negotiations with the government of Afghanistan, to be an active participant in peace negotiations including in a (planned) conference in Istanbul,” Mr Khalilzad said.
“Pakistan has a special responsibility given its influence over the Taliban and we appreciate what Pakistan has done so far but we are not there yet,” he said. “We look forward to working with them to get to a peace agreement between the Taliban and the Afghan government in coming weeks and months.”
This weekend marks the 10th anniversary of the operation, code-named Neptune Spear, that killed Osama bin Laden. It’s an opportunity to reflect on the state of Islamist terrorism and radical Islam more generally. And the initial diagnosis is clear: The movement is in bad shape.
Total deaths caused by terrorism around the world have plummeted by 59 percent since their peak in 2014. In the West, the current threat is less from Islamist violence than far-right terrorism, which has surged by 250 percent in the same period, and now makes up 46 percent of attacks and 82 percent of deaths.
Most Islamist terrorism today tends to be local — the Taliban in Afghanistan, Boko Haram in Nigeria, al-Shabab in the Horn of Africa. That’s a major reversal from the glory days of al-Qaeda, when its leaders insisted that the focus must be not on the “near enemy” (the local regimes) but rather the “far enemy” (the United States and the West more broadly). Al-Qaeda has disintegrated into a bunch of militias in disparate places with no central command or ideology. The Islamic State is doing slightly better, with more funds, but it, too, searches for unstable or ungoverned places, such as Mozambique, where it can operate. This focus on local conflicts erodes any global appeal. Muslims around the world do not identify with local causes in Mozambique or Somalia.
Militant Islam, which began to flourish in the 1970s, rooted its appeal in failure — the failure of the dictatorships and monarchies of the Arab world to develop their societies. Islamists urged Muslims to give up on Western-style modernization, which had led only to poverty and tyranny, and to embrace instead the idea of political Islam — the road to an Islamic state. People such as bin Laden and his associate Ayman al-Zawahiri turned political Islam into militant Islam because they argued it was the only way to topple the dictatorships of the Arab world and beyond. They urged terrorism against those regimes but most importantly, against the superpower that supported them — the United States.
In an essay in the journal Religions, Nader Hashemi points out that the allure of political Islam was always that of an untested opposition movement, a mystical alternative to the shoddy reality that existed on the ground in the Muslim world. But over the past few decades, Islamist parties have entered the political process in Iraq, Sudan, Tunisia, Egypt, Gaza, Jordan and other places. “One general theme stands,” writes Hashemi. “The popular prestige of political Islam has been tarnished by its experience with state power.”
Millions of Muslims have now seen political Islam in action — and they don’t like it. They fled the Islamic State caliphate in droves. They protested against the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. They watched Shiite parties in Iraq turn into corrupt patronage operations. And in Iran, they continue to be deeply disenchanted by that country’s theocratic government. The oxygen that fed political Islam — disgust with the current regimes and blind faith in the promise of religious leaders — has been severely depleted.
The lessons to draw about Islam, Islamist terrorism and the prospects for democracy in Islamic countries are complicated and varied. 2021 is also the 10th anniversary of the Arab Spring, when millions of Arabs tried to peacefully protest for democracy and human rights, a movement that sprouted up again over the past few years in Algeria, Sudan, Lebanon and Iraq. Though these efforts have had limited success, they show powerfully that Arabs and Muslims want freedom and democracy far more than they do a caliphate.
US leader has not contacted his Pakistani counterpart despite Islamabad's crucial role in brokering an Afghan peace settlement
Islamabad has not yet publicly conveyed its reservations about the Biden administration’s perceived snubs, but senior officials admit privately that they feel the gestures have been deliberate and not mere diplomatic oversight.
Fast forward to the present, the new US administration likely wants Islamabad to demonstrate it is not a pliant proxy of China. That’s easier said than done in light of Beijing’s US$60 billion commitment to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a key, strategic spoke of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Mushahid Hussain Syed, a Pakistani politician, analyst and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) Senator, told Asia Times that there was a perceived lack of sensitivity and gratitude on the part of the US for what Pakistan has and is doing to “pull the American chestnuts out of the fire on Afghanistan.”
“While Pakistan is pressing the ‘right buttons’ on FATF, India, Afghanistan and terrorism issues, which the US considers key irritants, they still seem to view Pakistan through the prism of the emerging Cold War. They are aligning with India to contain the Chinese influence in the region, which is going to backfire. The US should have rather built bridges with Islamabad that strived to bail out Washington from its latest defeat in yet another land war in Asia,” Syed said.
While China’s economic influence looms large, Pakistan still needs Washington’s support, both to sustain disbursements of its $6 billion bailout package from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and to be removed from the terror-financing and money-laundering watchdog Financial Action Task Force’s “grey list”, a designation that hinders Islamabad’s participation in global financial markets.
If Biden could influence either organization’s decision-making in Pakistan’s favor, he hasn’t done so yet. The IMF has so far released two tranches of $450 million each of an Extended Fund Facility program initiated in 2019, but delayed a second review meeting and the release of a third tranche last month without letting Pakistani officials know in advance.
Similarly, the FATF kept Pakistan on its grey list in February because “Pakistan must improve its investigations and prosecutions of all groups and entities financing terrorists and their associates and show that penalties imposed by courts are effective.” The next FATF plenary review of Pakistan’s status is due in June this year.
The proposals under consideration include so-called “Reconstruction Opportunity Zones” (ROZs), an initiative first broached by the George W Bush administration in 2006 in return for Islamabad’s support for the US “war on terror” in neighboring Afghanistan, where al Qaeda was then known to maintain bases.
The committee has also proposed the formation of a US-Pakistan Economic Zone at Karachi’s port to re-process industrial goods at concessional rates for export to US markets. The apex committee’s work has so far remained confined to working papers in the absence of an opportunity for Khan to engage personally with Biden’s team.
Mushahid opined that the new US administration seems confused about Pakistan’s role in the Afghanistan peace process, a communication breakdown that could fatally hinder ties.
“The only clarity seems to be a readiness to scapegoat Pakistan if and when things go wrong in Afghanistan,” said Syed, “while conjuring up the ‘China threat’ to justify their bloated military budgets.”
Pakistan ruled out Tuesday the possibility of again providing its military bases to the United States for future counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan after U.S. troops leave the conflict-torn neighbor by September 11.
Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi made the remarks to reporters in Islamabad, explaining that his government has adopted a policy that allows it to become "only partners in peace” and not join any future U.S. war.
“No sir, we do not intend to allow boots on the ground and no [U.S.] bases are being transferred to Pakistan,” Qureshi said when asked whether his government is under pressure to give military bases to the U.S.
President Joe Biden’s administration has acknowledged it is in talks with several Central Asian neighbors of Afghanistan to examine where it can reposition troops to prevent the landlocked country from once again becoming a terrorist base for groups like al-Qaida.
But U.S. officials have not named Pakistan, which shares a nearly 2,600-kilometers border with Afghanistan, nor have they commented on media speculation that the subject of bases might be under bilateral discussions.
Qureshi noted that Pakistan has also been consistently using its leverage over the Taliban, who have been waging a deadly insurgency against the U.S.-backed Afghan government, to encourage them to stop their violent campaign and negotiate a political settlement with Afghan rivals.
The foreign minister said “we feel” the Taliban’s engagement in the Afghan peace process would bring and enhance the “international respectability and recognition” that the group required.
“If they want to be acceptable, if they want delisting to take place, if they want recognition then engagement, giving up violence and looking for a political solution is in their political interest,” he said.
Qureshi referred to the Taliban's demand for the United Nations and the U.S. to delist top insurgent leaders from their sanctions lists.
The chief Pakistani diplomat hailed as a positive development the Taliban’s declaration of a three-day cease-fire during this week’s Eid festival in Afghanistan. The Kabul government has responded by ordering Afghan forces to halt all offensive operations against the insurgents during the three-day festivities beginning Thursday.
Pakistan has long been accused of harboring Taliban leaders, but in recent years, Washington and other Western powers have hailed Islamabad’s efforts in bringing the insurgents to the negotiating table with U.S. interlocutors and subsequently with rival Afghan groups.
The commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East and parts of South Asia warned during recent congressional testimony that Washington would face substantial challenges to track new or growing terrorist threats once the military completes the planned Afghan withdrawal.
“We’re examining this problem with all of our resources right now to find a way to do it in the most intelligent, risk-free manner that we can," said General Kenneth "Frank" McKenzie. "It's going to be extremely difficult."
Pakistani military bases and ground and air lines of communication played a vital role in facilitating and sustaining the U.S.-led military invasion of Afghanistan 20 years ago.
The punitive military action was undertaken to oust the Islamist Taliban from power days after the September 11, 2001, strikes on the U.S. that were plotted by al-Qaida leaders from Taliban-ruled Afghanistan at the time.
More than three weeks into the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, Washington's plans to help ensure the country does not descend into chaos remain murky despite a ramped-up effort to get Afghanistan's neighbors — Pakistan in particular — to do more.
The focus has been on rallying support, both for the ongoing diplomatic push to keep talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban on track, and for military cooperation should instability make new U.S. counterterrorism operations necessary.
But the U.S. efforts to solidify plans for what comes next appear to have taken on renewed urgency in recent days, leaning on outreach from the White House and the Pentagon to overcome a decade of strained ties and start to win over Pakistani officials.
Already, U.S. officials have voiced some optimism that an initial meeting between U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan and his Pakistani counterpart, Moeed Yusuf, on Sunday in Geneva, went well.
"Both sides discussed a range of bilateral, regional, and global issues of mutual interest," according to a statement issued by the White House on Monday, which made no reference to Afghanistan.
"Both sides agreed to continue the conversation," it said.
The Pentagon, likewise, expressed confidence following a call early Monday between U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Pakistan's Chief of Army Staff, General Qamar Javed Bajwa.
"The secretary's discussion this morning was very useful," Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told reporters. "The secretary reiterated his appreciation for Pakistan's support for the Afghanistan peace negotiations and expressed his desire to continue to build on the United States-Pakistan bilateral relationship."
History of mistrust
Yet beyond the initial discussions, progress on both the military and diplomatic fronts appears to be elusive, complicated by years of mistrust, some of it dating back to May 2011, when Washington did not alert Pakistan to the U.S. special operations forces raid in Abbottabad that killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.
At the time, Islamabad warned the U.S. against any unilateral military action on Pakistani territory.
And Pakistan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs Monday rejected the idea of allowing the U.S. to use Pakistan as a base for troops or as a staging point for potential airstrikes, dismissing speculation about the possibility of such an arrangement as "baseless and irresponsible."
In line with that approach, Prime Minister Imran Khan in March formed an Apex Committee that was tasked with formulating a new strategy on ties with the US under the Biden administration, the report said.
The 14-member committee is headed by Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi and comprises ministers for finance, national food security, economic affairs, information technology, national security adviser, and Prime Minister's aides on commerce, climate change, human resource development, power, and investment.
The Terms of Reference of the committee solely focused on finding ways and means to seek cooperation between Pakistan and the US in the fields of economy, trade, business, energy, technology, and climate change.
This is seen as a clear departure from the earlier approach adopted by Pakistan and the US that largely focused on security cooperation with Afghanistan.
Sources said Moeed went to Geneva with a blueprint' envisaging Pakistan's desire to broaden its relationship with the US beyond security cooperation and Afghanistan, according to the report.
Different ministries and departments made several proposals identifying potential areas of cooperation between Pakistan and the US.
The Board of Investment (BoI) has proposed to attract more US foreign direct investment in Pakistan, especially through technology firms. The BoI also seeks US investment through special incentive regimes.
The Ministry of Commerce has suggested that an American-Pakistan Economic Zone could be set up near Karachi port to allow reprocessing at concessional rates.
It has also proposed to enhance structured engagement through TIFA Ministerial Council and Business Opportunities Conference. Last time, the TIFA council meeting was held in May 2019. The US-Pakistan TIFA is the primary mechanism for both countries to discuss trade and investment issues and focus on ways to strengthen the bilateral relationship.
The United States continues to be Pakistan's largest market for exports.
The Ministry of Commerce has also sought early finalisation of proposed legislation on Reconstruction Opportunity Zones, which had been promised by the Bush administration in return for Pakistan's support to the US war in Afghanistan.
However, it is not clear if the Biden administration is receptive to the idea given its strategic priorities and close ties with India. Also, close ties between Pakistan and China can be a major factor that may desist the US from seeking broader engagement with Pakistan, the report said.
It is believed that given the conversation, Pakistani authorities have had so far with the new US administration, Washington has linked future cooperation with Pakistan delivering on the Afghan peace process.
Unlike the past, this time the US does not want to give any incentives to Pakistan before the Afghan endgame. If there is a peace deal to the satisfaction of the US, there is a likelihood of Washington offering certain incentives to Islamabad on trade, economy, and other issues.
Meanwhile, sources said Moeed may visit Washington soon following his recent meeting with his American counterpart, the report said.
Qureshi rules out providing military bases to US in future
In its first budget, for fiscal year 2022, the Biden administration also seeks money for providing economic and social support to Pakistan and for training Pakistani military personnel.
On Friday, President Joe Biden unveiled the largest US budget in history — seeking $6 trillion for fiscal 2022. The budget calls for a 16 per cent increase in non-defence spending, mainly in social programmes and infrastructure projects.
The overall defence budget request of $715 billion — indicates a decline of about 3pc in real terms from the current year as Afghanistan, Iraq drawdowns cut $3.2bn from the US Army costs.
Congress told funding for Pakistan will support governance and tackle extremism
The budget still asks for $3.3bn in operational support to sustain the Afghanistan Security Forces, a 9.2pc increase from 2021.
The US State Department’s budget proposals for foreign operations and related programmes also include requests for Pakistan.
“Funding for Pakistan will support strengthened democratic governance, particularly near the Afghan border in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province; address the drivers of violent extremism and support stability in Afghanistan and expand economic growth, including by bilateral trade and investment where possible,” said the proposal the department sent to Congress on Friday.
Funds for these programmes will come from the $324.5 million the department is seeking for South and Central Asia.
The requested funds’ core US security objectives across South Asia include supporting peace and stability in the region, addressing the challenges of climate change, supporting the economic recovery from Covid-19, and revitalising US alliances and partnerships.
“Regional activities for South Asia will strengthen transparent governance and civil society participation, promote private sector growth, support energy generation, and expand trade, including across the Afghanistan and Pakistan border,” the State Department informs Congress.
The department is also seeking $13.8m for its International Military Education and Training (IMET) programmes in South and Central Asia, which “support US priorities for the region, by focusing on professionalising the defence forces of regional partners, emphasising professional military education. Priority recipients include Pakistan, Bangladesh, India and Nepal”.
Although IMET is a small budget programme, it enhances coordination between US Armed Forces and those of friendly nations.
Washington had excluded Pakistan from this programme but in January 2020, the Trump administration resumed the training facility.
“To strengthen military to military cooperation on shared priorities & advance US national security, the President of the United States authorised the resumption of IMET for Pakistan. The overall security assistance suspension for Pakistan remains in effect,” the announcement added.
The IMET programme was suspended in 2018, after Pakistan and Russia signed an agreement to allow Pakistani military officers to receive training in Russian military institutions.
In May 2018, Washington suspended most of its security aid, delivery of military equipment and transfer of security-related funds to Pakistan after claiming that Pakistan provided safe haven for terrorists in Afghanistan, which Islamabad had denied.
However, in July 2019, the US approved $125m to provide Pakistan with technical support for its fleet of F-16 aircraft, after Prime Minister Imran Khan’s first official visit to Washington.
In recent statements, US officials and lawmakers have once again showed interest in reviving their ties with Pakistan. They are also seeking ground and air access to Afghanistan from Pakistan after the withdrawal of their troops by Sept 11, 2021.
The rapid withdrawal of U.S. troops has left the agency seeking ways to maintain its intelligence-gathering, war-fighting and counterterrorism operations in the country.
The rapid U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan is creating intense pressure on the C.I.A. to find new ways to gather intelligence and carry out counterterrorism strikes in the country, but the agency has few good options.
The C.I.A., which has been at the heart of the 20-year American presence in Afghanistan, will soon lose bases in the country from where it has run combat missions and drone strikes while closely monitoring the Taliban and other groups such as Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. The agency’s analysts are warning of the ever-growing risks of a Taliban takeover.
United States officials are in last-minute efforts to secure bases close to Afghanistan for future operations. But the complexity of the continuing conflict has led to thorny diplomatic negotiations as the military pushes to have all forces out by early to mid-July, well before President Biden’s deadline of Sept. 11, according to American officials and regional experts.
One focus has been Pakistan. The C.I.A. used a base there for years to launch drone strikes against militants in the country’s western mountains, but was kicked out of the facility in 2011, when U.S. relations with Pakistan unraveled.
Any deal now would have to work around the uncomfortable reality that Pakistan’s government has long supported the Taliban. In discussions between American and Pakistani officials, the Pakistanis have demanded a variety of restrictions in exchange for the use of a base in the country, and they have effectively required that they sign off on any targets that either the C.I.A. or the military would want to hit inside Afghanistan, according to three Americans familiar with the discussions.
Diplomats are also exploring the option of regaining access to bases in former Soviet republics that were used for the Afghanistan war, although they expect that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia would fiercely oppose this.
Recent C.I.A. and military intelligence reports on Afghanistan have been increasingly pessimistic. They have highlighted gains by the Taliban and other militant groups in the south and east, and warned that Kabul could fall to the Taliban within years and return to becoming a safe haven for militants bent on striking the West, according to several people familiar with the assessments.
As a result, U.S. officials see the need for a long-term intelligence-gathering presence — in addition to military and C.I.A. counterterrorism operations — in Afghanistan long after the deadline that Mr. Biden has set for troops to leave the country. But the scramble for bases illustrates how U.S. officials still lack a long-term plan to address security in a country where they have spent trillions of dollars and lost more than 2,400 troops over nearly two decades.
on US plans of having a drone base in Pakistan amid troop withdrawal from Afghanistan:
"We have had constructive discussions in military, intel, diplomatic channels with Pak about future of America's capabilities...specifics will have to remain in pvt channels"
Pakistan will "absolutely not" allow the CIA to use bases on its soil for cross-border counterterrorism missions after American forces withdraw from Afghanistan, Prime Minister Imran Khan tells "Axios on HBO" in a wide-ranging interview airing Sunday at 6pm ET.
Why it matters: The quality of counterterrorism and intelligence capabilities in Afghanistan is a critical question facing the Biden administration as U.S. forces move closer to total withdrawal by Sept. 11.
The Biden administration also is exploring options in Central Asia to maintain intelligence on terrorist networks inside Afghanistan, but that is complicated for a different reason: Those countries are in Vladimir Putin's sphere of influence.
Where it stands: Despite an uneasy relationship with Pakistan, whose military has deep ties to the Taliban, the U.S. has conducted hundreds of drone strikes and cross-border counterterrorism operations from Pakistani soil.
But Khan, who was elected in 2018, was unequivocal: Pakistan will not allow the CIA or U.S. special forces to base themselves inside his country ever again, he told Axios.
Between the lines: Khan has long opposed Pakistan cooperating with the U.S. war on terror, but the reality is that he also has no choice but to say this publicly.
Close observers say it would be political suicide for Khan to embrace the presence of the CIA or special forces on Pakistani soil.
American officials privately are still hopeful they can come to a covert arrangement with Pakistan's powerful military and intelligence services.
CIA Director William Burns did not meet with Khan when he made an unannounced trip to Islamabad recently to meet with the head of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency, amid questions about how the CIA will adapt after two decades of intelligence and paramilitary operations in Afghanistan.
Earlier this month, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said the U.S. has had "constructive discussions" with Pakistan about ensuring Afghanistan will never again become a base from which terrorist groups can attack the U.S., but he declined to go into specifics.
What's next: Burns has warned of the "significant risk" of al-Qaeda and ISIS regrouping in Afghanistan. "When the time comes for the U.S. military to withdraw, the U.S. government's ability to collect and act on threats will diminish," he testified in April. "That is simply a fact."
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told Congress this week that it will take militant groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS possibly two years to develop the capability to strike the U.S. homeland.
The bottom line: That risk will only increase if the Afghan government collapses and the country falls into a civil war, Joint Chiefs of Staff chair Mark Milley testified.
Getting Pakistan on board with the peace process will be the pivotal factor, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said last month in an interview with German newspaper Der Spiegel: "The U.S. now plays only a minor role. The question of peace or hostility is now in Pakistani hands."
Appearing to be shocked by the Prime Minister's response, Swan asked, "Seriously".
Axios on HBO is known for interviews with leaders in technology, media, business, and politics. It has featured interviews with former US president Donald Trump, Google CEO Sundar Pichai, Tesla CEO Elon Musk, GM CEO Mary Barra, President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and 2020 Democratic Presidential Primary candidate Andrew Yang among others.
You know my record. I can tell by the way you asked the question.
I opposed permanently having American forces in Afghanistan. I argued, from the beginning, as you may recall — it came to light after the administration was over, last — our administration — no nation has ever unified Afghanistan. No nation. Empires have gone there and not done it.
I believe the only way there’s going to be — this is now Joe Biden, not the intelligence community — the only way there’s ultimately going to be peace and security in Afghanistan is that they work out a modus vivendi with the Taliban and they make a judgment as to how they can make peace.
And the likelihood there’s going to be one unified government in Afghanistan controlling the whole country is highly unlikely.
While appearing on NBC's "Meet the Press," Kinzinger was asked by host Chuck Todd whether he agreed with a headline from The Economist that called the withdrawal a crushing defeat.
"No, I agree. It's a crushing defeat. You know, the Taliban always had a saying. They said, 'The U.S. -- America has the watches, but we have the time.' You know, I'm proud of the American people for sticking by this mission for 20 years. We actually needed to do it longer and we still have troops in Kosovo, but unfortunately it worked," Kinzinger said.
"The Taliban have outlasted the will of the United States. It was not a hot war, really. It was basically a peacekeeping operation and we may have to go back now. It is a crushing defeat and I'm really sad about it, honestly," he added.
The U.S. left Bagram Airfield earlier this month, signalling a symbolic end the the U.S.'s presence in Afghanistan. Todd asked Kinzinger if he felt it was likely the U.S. would have to occupy the airbase again in the future.
"I do think it's quite likely we're going to have to either — when we return to Afghanistan because, you know, of the existential threat to us or our allies — re-occupy Bagram or we may have to bomb it if there's some kind of an air mission," Kinzinger opined.
Kinzinger added, "We only had 2,500 troops there, 5,000 NATO troops, and the Afghanistan government was doing 98 percent of the fighting against the Taliban. It's no wonder they're collapsing when the U.S. says, 'We're gone.' But it was really a small price to pay for frankly holding off the inevitable bad that unfortunately we're going to see."
Once more we are abandoning those who risked all by trusting in America.
Regrettably for the United States, but more tragically for the people of Afghanistan, history is repeating itself.
When a great power commits to defending an ally, it assumes a moral obligation of faithful stewardship. If the great power fails, it may not in good conscience simply abandon those who stood by its side, placing their lives and futures at risk in reliance on the good faith of their protector.
Yet abandoning those who trusted in us is exactly what the U.S. did at the end of the Vietnam War — and what it is now doing to the Afghans.
Last week, President Joe Biden indignantly denied any comparison, telling reporters who suggested one that the Taliban insurgency is not "the North Vietnamese army. ... There's going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of [an] embassy ... of the United States from Afghanistan.It is not at all comparable."
This claim deserves closer examination.
In October 1954, President Dwight Eisenhower made a commitment to the people of South Vietnam to assist them in defending their country against conquest by the communist government in North Vietnam. Undeterred, Hanoi launched a campaign of violence in 1959, supporting the insurgency of a subsidiary known as the Viet Cong, and in 1965 sending its regular army into South Vietnam.
The U.S. responded. President John Kennedy sent military advisers and special forces, President Lyndon Johnson sent ground troops and began bombing North Vietnam to reduce the flow of men and supplies into South Vietnam. By 1968 over 500,000 Americans were fighting in South Vietnam.
After major attacks across South Vietnam during the 1968 Tet holiday, Johnson began peace talks with Hanoi and capped the American force commitment. In 1969 President Richard Nixon began a program of "Vietnamization" whereby American military forces would gradually turn the fighting completely over to the South Vietnamese.
Vietnamization was a success. The Viet Cong were defeated by a village-based South Vietnamese counterinsurgency and development program with U.S. support.
A peace agreement was signed in January 1973 after all American forces had left. Hanoi's army remained in South Vietnam. In 1975 Hanoi violated its peace agreement and defeated its nationalist rivals.
In the aftermath, the U.S. gave refuge only to some 130,000 South Vietnamese nationalists out of so many who had opposed Communist tyranny — some 750,000 South Vietnamese soldiers (not including their families) and over 2 million teachers, village leaders, intellectuals, policemen, self-defense volunteers, civil servants and religious leaders (also not including their families).
After their victory, the Communists sent over 200,000 of its political opponents to concentration camps for "re-education." Some were there for 12 years of punishment for having followed their consciences.
In the late 1960s, I had been deployed to the CORDS counterinsurgency and village development program in South Vietnam. In 1975, I joined former CORDS colleagues and others in Washington to press to get a refugee resettlement approved and executed.
This effort was successful. With support from the staff of Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass, a parole program was approved to admit Vietnamese nationalists to the U.S. There was then no refugee act. Kennedy's position, as I remember, was that the U.S. could take in as many Vietnamese nationalists as it had taken refugees from Castro's Cuba, some 150,000 persons.
One of the most generous states in quickly providing sponsorships for the Vietnamese refugees was Minnesota.
“I want to talk about happy things, man!” protested President Joe Biden in early July, when reporters asked him about the imminent withdrawal of the last American forces from Afghanistan, expected some time in the next few weeks. No wonder he wants to change the subject: America has been fighting in Afghanistan for 20 years. It has spent more than $2trn on the war. It has lost thousands of its own troops and seen the death of tens of thousands of Afghans—soldiers and civilians alike. Now America is calling an end to the whole sorry adventure, with almost nothing to show for it.
True, al-Qaeda, which sparked the war by planning the 9/11 attacks from Afghanistan, is no longer much of a force in the country, although it has not been eliminated entirely. But that is about as far as it goes. Other anti-American terror groups, including a branch of Islamic State, continue to operate in Afghanistan. The zealots of the Taliban, who harboured Osama bin Laden and were overthrown by American-backed forces after 9/11, have made a horrifying comeback. They are in complete control of about half the country and threaten to conquer the rest. The democratic, pro-Western government fostered by so much American blood and money is corrupt, widely reviled and in steady retreat.
In theory, the Taliban and the American-backed government are negotiating a peace accord, whereby the insurgents lay down their arms and participate instead in a redesigned political system. In the best-case scenario, strong American support for the government, both financial and military (in the form of continuing air strikes on the Taliban), coupled with immense pressure on the insurgents’ friends, such as Pakistan, might succeed in producing some form of power-sharing agreement. But even if that were to happen—and the chances are low—it would be a depressing spectacle. The Taliban would insist on moving backwards in the direction of the brutal theocracy they imposed during their previous stint in power, when they confined women to their homes, stopped girls from going to school and meted out harsh punishments for sins such as wearing the wrong clothes or listening to the wrong music.
More likely than any deal, however, is that the Taliban try to use their victories on the battlefield to topple the government by force. They have already overrun much of the countryside, with government units mostly restricted to cities and towns. Demoralised government troops are abandoning their posts. This week over 1,000 of them fled from the north-eastern province of Badakhshan to neighbouring Tajikistan. The Taliban have not yet managed to capture and hold any cities, and may lack the manpower to do so in lots of places at once. They may prefer to throttle the government slowly rather than attack it head on. But the momentum is clearly on their side.
At the very least, the civil war is likely to intensify, as the Taliban press their advantage and the government fights for its life. Other countries—China, India, Iran, Russia and Pakistan—will seek to fill the vacuum left by America. Some will funnel money and weapons to friendly warlords. The result will be yet more bloodshed and destruction, in a country that has suffered constant warfare for more than 40 years. Those who worry about possible reprisals against the locals who worked as translators for the Americans are missing the big picture: America is abandoning an entire country of almost 40m people to a grisly fate.
India on Sunday said it has “temporarily” brought back officials from its consulate in Kandahar, a major city in southern Afghanistan, as Taliban fighters continue to gain control amid the withdrawal of international forces.
However, sources said New Delhi is also delivering ammunition to the beleaguered Kabul administration and has recently sent two cargo planes to Kabul and Kandahar, full of artillery shells. The same planes were used to evacuate Indian officials from the two cities.
"Due to the intense fighting near Kandahar city, India-based personnel have been brought back for the time being," India's foreign ministry chief spokesperson Arindam Bagchi said in a statement.
"India is closely monitoring the evolving security situation in Afghanistan," Bagchi said, adding that India's consulate in Kandahar was being run by local staff temporarily.
Taliban officials said on Friday the group had taken control of 85% of Afghanistan's territory, as the United States and others withdrew the bulk of their troops after 20 years of fighting. Afghan government officials dismissed the assertion as a propaganda campaign.
India's foreign minister on Friday called for a reduction of violence, saying the situation in the war-torn nation has a direct bearing on regional security. However, on Saturday an Indian Air Force (IAF) C-17 aircraft arrived at Kandahar Airfield at 11am to deliver 40 tons of 122mm artillery shells.
The Afghan Taliban in a video that went viral on social media claimed that they have captured the Indian consulate in Kandahar.
Tolo News in June said the outreach by India was being led by its security officials and had been limited to groups or leaders perceived as "nationalists" or outside the influence of Pakistan and Iran.
The report, quoted by the Afghan media outlet and originally from an Indian publication, stated that communication had been underway for some months and continues to be "exploratory in nature".
Among the leaders contacted was the deputy leader of the Afghan Taliban, Mullah Baradar. The report added that though messages have been exchanged, there is no confirmation of a meeting.
One is a government accused of detaining more than 1 million Muslims in a vast system of internment camps. The other is one of the world's strictest Islamist militant groups. Yet despite their differences, the Chinese Communist Party and the Taliban may soon find themselves working together, at least tentatively.
Following the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan, the Taliban is again resurgent, taking control of great swathes of the country. The speed at which Afghan security forces have lost control to the Taliban has shocked many, and led to concerns the capital Kabul could be next to fall.
The Islamist group is already planing for such a future, with a Taliban spokesman telling the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post earlier this week that China was a "welcome friend," and conversations over reconstruction should begin "as soon as possible."
The possibility of the Chinese government cooperating with the Taliban in a post-US Afghanistan is not as unlikely as it may first appear. Afghanistan remains a key component in Beijing's long-term regional development plans. In May, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Beijing was in discussions with Islamabad and Kabul to extend the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) to Afghanistan, including expanding transport and trade networks between the three countries.
Nor is China averse to dealing with the Taliban, having publicly welcomed the militant group to Beijing in September 2019 for peace talks.
The Taliban, meanwhile, has made clear it would be willing to overlook any perceived grievances, with a spokesman telling the Wall Street Journal earlier this month the group had no interest in criticizing China over its alleged repression of Muslim minorities in Xinjiang. "We care about the oppression of Muslims ... But what we are not going to do is interfere in China's internal affairs," he was quoted as saying.
Pakistani senator Mushahid Hussain, chairman of the Pakistan-China Institute, told CNN the Taliban was more "chastened and pragmatic" than during its previous time in power, and the Islamists saw China as a "credible stakeholder" in Afghanistan. "(If they took power) they would need Chinese support for Afghanistan's stability and reconstruction. Annoying China is a recipe for disaster for the Taliban," he said.
Any deterioration in Afghanistan's security situation would be of significant concern to Beijing too, which has invested heavily in Central Asia through its Belt and Road trade and infrastructure scheme. In recent years, Islamist militants have attacked Chinese nationals and their interests in the Pakistani province of Balochistan, which borders Afghanistan. The prospect of further violence is likely to create unease in Beijing, as will the specter of homegrown Chinese militants finding sanctuary in Afghanistan's lawless border areas.
So far, the Chinese government hasn't publicly responded to the Taliban's advances. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi is visiting Turkmenistan, Tajikstan and Uzbekistan this week, and is expected to discuss the issue of Afghanistan with his counterparts during the trip.
However, in a widely-shared social media post, Hu Xijin, the editor of state-run nationalist tabloid Global Times, said the Taliban considered China a "friend." His newspaper, meanwhile, suggested Western media outlets were trying to ruin the Taliban's relationship with Beijing by raising questions over Xinjiang.
"The West did not really care about Xinjiang Uyghurs' human rights. It instead hoped to sow discord between Beijing and the Taliban," the opinion piece said.
“The president of the United States hasn’t spoken to the prime minister of such an important country who the US itself says is make-or-break in some cases, in some ways, in Afghanistan — we struggle to understand the signal, right?” Moeed Yusuf, Pakistan’s national security adviser, told the Financial Times in an interview at Pakistan’s embassy in Washington. “We’ve been told every time that . . . [the phone call] will happen, it’s technical reasons or whatever. But frankly, people don’t believe it,” he said. “If a phone call is a concession, if a security relationship is a concession, Pakistan has options,” he added, refusing to elaborate. Pakistan has cultivated deep ties with its “iron brother” China, which has invested billions in infrastructure projects as part of its Belt and Road Initiative. A senior Biden administration official said: “There are still a number of world leaders President Biden has not been able to speak with personally yet. He looks forward to speaking with Prime Minister Khan when the time is right.” The perceived diplomatic affront marks the latest setback to US-Pakistan relations after their co-operation during the war on terror following the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center by al-Qaeda, the Islamist group founded by Osama bin Laden. In 2004, the US named Pakistan an official major non-Nato ally, spurred by Washington’s need for support to fight in Afghanistan. But US administrations have since regularly accused their ally of harbouring Taliban insurgents, claims denied by Pakistan.
In an interview with Kamran Khan, Moeed Yusuf said FT has distorted what he said. He went on to say that the talk of Biden's call to Imran Khan is irrelevant.
Over time, aware of the government’s vulnerable position, Afghan leaders turned to an outside source to galvanize the population: Pakistan. Razziq, President Hamid Karzai and later President Ashraf Ghani used Pakistan as an outside threat to unite Afghans behind them. They refused to characterize the Taliban as anything but a creation of Islamabad. Razziq relentlessly claimed to be fighting a foreign Pakistani invasion. Yet Pakistan could never fully out-inspire occupation. A popular tale related to me in 2018 by an Afghan government official illuminates the reality:
An Afghan army officer and a Taliban commander were insulting each other over their radios while shooting back and forth. The Taliban commander taunted: “You are puppets of America!” The army officer shouted back: “You are the puppets of Pakistan!” The Taliban commander replied: “The Americans are infidels. The Pakistanis are Muslims.” The Afghan officer had no response.
Let’s take Pakistan, for example. Pakistan is a powerful factor here. But on the battlefield, if 200 Afghan police and army are confronted with 50 Taliban or less than that, and those government forces retreat, that doesn’t have a lot to do with Pakistan. That has to do with something else.
While the Anglo-American intelligence alliance remains rock-solid, the Pakistani-American one has badly foundered. But decades from now, historians will look back on this era’s checkered legacy and highlight OVERT as a model. The menace of transnational terrorism will likely stay with us, and so we should hope that both friendly and adversarial nations will continue to work together to keep their populations safe without losing sight of their values.
By AKI PERITZ
01/02/2022 07:00 AM EST
Aki Peritz is a former CIA analyst and the author of Disruption: Inside the Largest Counterterrorism Investigation in History, from which this article is adapted.
August 9, 2006. It was evening in Walthamstow, East London. Two local men had arranged to meet at the Town Hall complex to discuss an urgent matter. They met in the parking lot, briefly rummaging around in the back of one of their cars, before walking off toward the Walthamstow War Memorial. There, they leaned against a wall in the dark, chatting.
A little way off in the darkness, the command crackled over the police comms. The surveillance team watching the men from afar was ordered to move in and arrest them immediately. Their high-priority targets had converged on a single spot, and there was little time to waste. But this was Great Britain, where the police do not carry guns. These men and women were suddenly tasked to arrest the two top suspects in al-Qaeda’s largest terror plot in the West since 9/11 — and they didn’t have a single firearm among them.
All they had were, at best, cuffs and a stern voice. And so the team aggressively approached the men, hoping they wouldn’t have a gun or a knife. Or a bomb, possibly hidden in one of the cars, ready to detonate with a flick of the switch.
Utterly caught off guard, two men who had spent the last several months plotting to bring down multiple passenger planes over the Atlantic Ocean gave up without a fight.
Thus began a massive crackdown throughout the United Kingdom. That night and into the following morning, scores of police kicked down doors across London and elsewhere, tackling suspects on the street, dragging others from their homes and safehouses. It was the culmination of Operation OVERT, a massive investigation that had been whirring relatively quietly for months as the U.S., the U.K. and Pakistan worked together to crush what would come to be known as the transatlantic aircraft plot: a terrorist conspiracy to kill thousands of passengers by detonating liquid explosives hidden in plastic bottles.
OVERT was a huge undertaking; over 800 surveillance officers worked on cracking that cell, with teams pulled in from Northern Ireland and the military. “If the Boy Scouts had a surveillance team,” Steve Dryden of the London Metropolitan Police dryly noted, “we’d have used them as well.” Across the Atlantic, the White House, CIA, NSA and other departments were providing as much assistance to their British counterparts as possible. Cooperation from the United States, as well as from Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), had been critical to the effort that ended with the raft of arrests on that August night.