U.S-Pakistan Go Back To The Future

Ongoing negotiations over bases and military cooperation present an economic opportunity for Pakistan.

Civilian and military leaders from the United States and Pakistan have had a flurry of meetings in recent weeks, and various outlets have now confirmed that one of the asks made by the U.S. is about access to military bases in Pakistan. A recent story in the New York Times revealed that the CIA chief was in Pakistan recently as well:

Mr. Burns made an unannounced visit in recent weeks to Islamabad, Pakistan, to meet with the chief of the Pakistani military and the head of the directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence, the country’s military intelligence agency. Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III has had frequent calls with the Pakistani military chief about getting the country’s help for future U.S. operations in Afghanistan, according to American officials familiar with the conversations.

Mr. Burns did not bring up the base issue during his trip to Pakistan, according to people briefed on the meeting; the visit focused on broader counterterrorism cooperation between the two countries. At least some of Mr. Austin’s discussions have been more direct, according to people briefed on them.

According to Dawn, the CIA chief wanted to meet Prime Minister Khan, but this request was denied. It also said that Pakistan has categorically told the U.S. that it won’t allow access to bases:

Government officials have privately begun confirming a secret visit to Islamabad of CIA Director William Burns and are suggesting that he was firmly told that Pakistan would not host the spy agency’s drone bases on its territory.

Officials said the CIA chief wanted to meet Prime Minister Imran Khan, but was plainly told that only counterpart meeting between heads of government of the two countries was possible.

So now that we know what is brewing, here are some of my thoughts on why providing access to the U.S., such that it may carry out kinetic and non-kinetic activities in Afghanistan following the withdrawal of American forces, may actually be in everyone’s interest.

Pakistan

Pakistan’s economy needs inflow of foreign dollars so that momentum continues to build. These financial flows are required from foreign investors, donor agencies, and the IMF. It is important to remember that high rates of growth in Pakistan have almost always coincided with these foreign inflows, with everyone from Ayub to Musharraf and Nawaz benefiting from these flows.

Additionally, Pakistan could use these negotiations to ease conditions from the IMF, which will have a direct impact on the lives of ordinary citizens, who are facing higher power tariffs and inflation as the structural adjustments in key sectors are pushed through.

Then there is the FATF sword hanging over Pakistan’s neck. Again, part of the deal will ensure that this problem goes away, at least for as long as Pakistan cooperates with the U.S.

Military assistance, especially in the form of counter-terror cooperation and equipment, will also be secured, allowing the military to resume what has been a historically important and strategic partnership between the U.S. and Pakistan.

Finally, cooperating with the U.S. to ensure that intelligence can be gathered in Afghanistan and kinetic operations, through drones strikes and otherwise, can be carried out helps Pakistan guard against the growing threat of terrorism across the Durand Line. Note that in recent weeks, terror strikes on Pakistani forces have picked up. The risk is that increasing violence in Afghanistan will further empower the TTP, Baloch insurgents, and other radical groups who can then carry out strikes within Pakistan, including on projects related to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

China

Which brings us to Pakistan’s all-weather friend, China. It is also in Chinese interest to allow the U.S. some ability to carry out kinetic strikes against terror outfits in Afghanistan. Recall that the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) has used Afghanistan as a base for its operations in the past, creating national security threats for China. With the ongoing situation in Xinjiang, it is likely that an increasing footprint of terror groups in Afghanistan will lead to action against Chinese atrocities against Muslims, with CPEC projects being viewed as an easy target. Additionally, Baloch militants remain a threat.

All of this means that China may also accept some level of U.S. military presence in Pakistan to ensure that things in Afghanistan do not go out of hand, which would create issues for China’s strategic interests in the region.

United States

For the U.S., having access to bases in Pakistan is an easy way to maintain some level of influence within Afghanistan, particularly as it relates to a transnational terror threat. As we all know, following the U.S. departure from Iraq, ISIS ran rampant in the region, creating a global threat that eventually had to be dealt in part through an increased U.S. military footprint in Iraq and Syria. The fear is that a similar situation may arise in Afghanistan, which means that having the capacity to hit at terrorist targets is necessary.

Rekindling military cooperation with Pakistan is a relatively low-cost, high-impact option for the Biden administration, which is why it is engaged in negotiations. It also knows that there is plenty that the U.S. can offer Pakistan, both in terms of military and economic assistance.

Conclusion

In my view, providing the U.S. with the ability to carry out operations in Afghanistan is a net positive opportunity for Pakistan. Others disagree: in a recent article published in The Diplomat, Syed Ali Zia Jaffery argues the following:

Pakistan letting the United States use its bases will only add to the country’s tally of external security concerns and internal political tussles. At a time when Pakistan is looking to jump on the geoeconomics bandwagon, this is exactly what it cannot afford.

I disagree with Jaffery on two of the three points he makes. Except Prime Minister Khan’s own previous stance on this issue, there is nothing else standing in the way of a deal between the U.S. and Pakistan. As mentioned earlier, allowing the U.S. access will ensure that Pakistan can guard its own national security interests, which will be threatened as the Taliban gain further ground in Afghanistan.

Additionally, both China and Iran are likely to face terror threats emanating from Afghanistan, so it is in their interest to allow the U.S. some military ability to deal with terror groups in across the Durand Line.

We already have some indications that Pakistan is negotiating with the U.S., with reports suggesting that easing of IMF conditions and restoring military assistance are both on the agenda. Here’s Khurram Husain in Dawn:

The new finance minister, Shaukat Tarin, has made it clear that Pakistan will be seeking a renegotiation of the IMF programme that was restarted in April after a year-long hiatus. Specifically, he wants to wiggle out of the commitments given by his predecessor on power tariff hikes, revenue measures through the elimination of tax exemptions for corporates, curbs on spending and hikes in the petroleum development levy, and, quite possibly, abort the move to usher in greater central bank independence and wind up its refinance facilities. He has also said that he will seek more funds from the IMF, possibly through another purchase under the Rapid Financing Instrument under which Pakistan received $1.4 billion last year as the lockdowns began.

It will be interesting to see where things go from here, but my view is that some sort of agreement between the U.S. and Pakistan is a win-win outcome for all. With two years to go until the next general elections, easing of IMF conditions, end of the FATF saga, and increased dollar flows related to military cooperation and economic assistance can generate increased economic growth. And if the economy has another spurt of growth, Prime Minister Khan’s prospects of winning the upcoming elections increase dramatically.

We will know more about where things are going in the coming weeks, but one hopes that one of the lessons Pakistani policymakers have learnt from history is that these agreements should not be made in secret, as doing so will only create long-term issues that will creating significant risks for Pakistan’s internal stability and long-term national security.