The Kabul Times.
Opinion

U.S. withdrawal constrains counterterrorism options

A street vendor carrying his merchandise walks past a mural depicting an Afghan National Army soldier in Kabul on June 10, 2021. (Photo by ADEK BERRY / AFP) (Photo by ADEK BERRY/AFP via Getty Images)

By: Michael Kugelman,
When U.S. President Joe Biden announced a full troop withdrawal from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, he said he planned to fight terrorism without boots on the ground. “We’ll reorganize our counterterrorism capabilities and the substantial assets in the region to prevent reemergence of terrorists,” he said in April. In recent days, it’s become clear that is easier said than done.
On Sunday, the New York Times reported that U.S. officials have held talks with Pakistan about using nearby Pakistani military bases for U.S. counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan. This option makes sense: Pakistan has the advantage of location and precedent. It previously granted base privileges to U.S. security personnel for listening posts during the Cold War and for drones in the post-9/11 era.
But anti-U.S. sentiment runs deep in Pakistan. The public strongly opposes basing arrangements for the United States. Prime Minister Imran Khan is a vocal opponent of U.S. drone strikes, and his government has taken a populist position on the question of U.S. basing—publicly rejecting the possibility of an agreement. According to the Times story, the U.S.-Pakistan talks have not gotten far.
A base deal isn’t impossible if the United States accepts Pakistani conditions, such as approving U.S. targets in Afghanistan, and offers additional incentives, such as the restoration of security assistance suspended in 2018. Any negotiations will be led by the Pakistani Army, which has a more sanguine view of military cooperation with Washington than the civilian leadership and has signed off on past basing agreements.
The political risks of a base accord could still be prohibitive. A secret agreement would likely be exposed eventually. Pakistan would also face pressure from its close ally China to avoid a deal. And U.S.-Pakistan counterterrorism cooperation has a mixed record. The countries have worked together successfully to apprehend al Qaeda leaders, but U.S. officials also believe Pakistan has tipped off militants in Afghanistan about impending raids.
Pakistan’s long-standing patronage of the Taliban, which still cooperate with al Qaeda, is a major tension point. Mistrust lingers, especially for Biden administration officials who directly experienced these tensions while serving in the Obama White House. Such sentiment could work against a new base deal. Washington’s other options are also problematic. Tajikistan and Uzbekistan border Afghanistan and previously permitted U.S. military personnel on their soil—though only for refueling purposes in Tajikistan. If they host U.S. troops now, they face the unpalatable prospect of provoking Russia. Additionally, Tajikistan has fraught relations with Washington, and Uzbekistan has a law banning foreign troops on its territory. India, the United States’ closest partner in South Asia, may look like an intriguing option. But despite deepening military cooperation with Washington, New Delhi avoids alliances and would likely oppose U.S. basing on its soil. India also doesn’t border Afghanistan. The most direct route to Afghanistan actually runs through Pakistan, which is unlikely to give overflight rights to U.S. military air assets—such as drones—that originate in India.
Finally, the United States has military facilities in the Persian Gulf, although their distance from Afghanistan would hamper surveillance and targeting. These facilities may just have to do. Speaking to the Senate Appropriations Defense Committee on June 8, acting Air Force Secretary John Roth said that existing U.S. bases will be used for “over-the-horizon” counterterrorism activities in Afghanistan for now. Pursuing new intelligence-sharing accords with Pakistan and the Central Asian states is a more realistic option for the United States. And although other key regional players—including China, Russia, and Iran—are U.S. rivals, they all have strong reasons to curb transnational terrorist threats in Afghanistan. Washington has an opportunity to spearhead multilateral diplomacy focused on this shared interest. But as long as U.S. negotiators struggle to secure new basing arrangements close to Afghanistan, its counterterrorism capacity will face constraints, and Biden’s assurances could ultimately ring hollow.
This article also appeared in Foreign Policy weblog on June 10.

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The Kabul Times.