The countdown has begun. In less than 20 days, the US will withdraw from its biggest airbase, Bagram—that had been the heart of the operations in Afghanistan for two decades and held Taliban prisoners—to meet the September 11 deadline. While American forces are ready to go home, the next battle of counter-terrorism will be fought from a distance. As the US figures out the logistics, it is clear that Washington will need more help from Pakistan.
There has been a certain shift in the US towards Pakistan that will undoubtedly be watched closely by India. May was a hectic month for Pakistan-US ties. US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan met Moeed Yusuf, National Security Adviser of Pakistan, in Geneva. Pakistan Foreign Minister S.M. Qureshi visited the US—he is tasked with formulating a plan to improve US-Pakistan ties that have been less than warm—and there was a phone call from US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin to Pakistan Chief of Army Staff Javad Qamar Bajwa. Then, there was also the unannounced visit by CIA chief William Burns to Islamabad, a hush-hush affair.
The question that looms large is whether Pakistan will allow a base for the US? Qureshi has made it clear. “I want to assure the House that Pakistan is in safe hands,'' he was quoted as telling the Senate in Pakistan on May 26. This is a position he repeated earlier too. "We will not allow boots on the ground or military bases on our territory,'' he had been quoted as saying by Pakistani media outlets on May 13. He has also ruled out drone attacks from its soil, a stance that had been strongly articulated by Prime Minister Imran Khan.
However, a statement by US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan on Monday suggests that the door may not be firmly shut. At a White House briefing, Sullivan has been quoted as saying that US officials had constructive discussions through military, intelligence and diplomatic channels with Pakistan about the future of America’s capabilities to ensure that Afghanistan never again becomes a base from which al Qaeda or ISIS or any other terrorist group can attack the US. He refused to divulge any more details. “But in terms of the specifics of what that will look like, that will have to remain in those private channels as we work through them,'' he said. He did say that they were “talking to a wide range of countries about how they build effective, over-the-horizon capacity, both from an intelligence and a defence perspective, to be able to suppress the terrorism threat in Afghanistan”.
There is no doubt that the US will be keen to use Pakistan to keep an eye on Afghanistan going back to an arrangement that existed till 2011. But it will be difficult for Imran Khan to be able to dilute this stand easily. Nor will it be easy for him to shake off Chinese discomfort if Pakistan chooses to embrace America too closely. It is a space India will be watching closely.