Could Pakistan Turn Towards The United States Again?

Historically, Pakistan's authorities have been all too happy to let the country serve as an American outpost. But with an increased reliance on China, an American military presence on Pakistani soil is a remote possibility.

Could Pakistan Turn Towards The United States Again?

In the last three years, South Asia has witnessed a rare development—from the shores of the Arabian Sea on Pakistan’s southern coast, up till the steppes of Central Asia, the US has no military footprint on the ground. 

The Central Asian states of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan hosted a US military presence from 2001 till 2014. US bases, landing and refueling rights for its military aircraft were rescinded by these Central Asian states under pressure from Russia and China. Pakistan asked the US military to vacate its air bases in Sindh and Baluchistan—granted to the US military in the wake of the 9/11 attacks; from these bases, the US Air Force used to launch strikes inside Afghanistan as well as drone attacks in Pakistani tribal areas in 2011. After the US military withdrew from Afghanistan in August 2021, Washington, for the first time in 20 years, was without any military presence in this region. 

This created the impression that the United States was deliberately withdrawing from this region, This impression was, however, dispelled by senior US military officials, who, in the wake of their withdrawal from Afghanistan, have been telling different forums that they would soon have a military presence around Afghanistan. Afghanistan borders six countries - Iran, Pakistan, China, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan - none of which currently house any American bases. Obviously, there is no chance Washington would get basing rights in Iran and China. Turkmenistan is too serious about maintaining its military neutrality; Uzbekistan and Tajikistan ended military cooperation with Washington under pressure from Russia and China in 2014. 

Pakistan’s precarious economic and financial conditions and its crisis prone and unstable political system makes it easy prey to American pressure.

In recent years there have been some developments with regards to increasing military cooperation between Washington and these central Asian states. But ignoring Chinese and Russian preferences is not easy for these central Asian states.

This leaves Pakistan as an obvious choice for American efforts to secure military bases close to Afghanistan. Pakistan’s precarious economic and financial conditions and its crisis prone and unstable political system makes it easy prey to American pressure. There are numerous reports in the American media suggesting that Pakistan and the United States were negotiating the possibility of providing military bases to the US military in its provinces which border Afghanistan. 

Some of these reports suggest that the Pakistan military wants to have the final word in any American decision to strike inside Afghanistan, in case military bases are provided to Washington on Pakistan territory. Since the creation of Pakistan as a territorial state, the Americans have always eyed Pakistani territory as an ideal strategic location for their military bases. 

During the Cold War, Afghanistan’s border with Soviet Central Asia was where the off-limits for the US military started. Afghanistan acted as a sort of buffer state between the Soviet Union and American allied Muslims states of Iran and Pakistan. The American CIA was still flying reconnaissance aircraft over Soviet Central Asia from its bases in Pakistan. The CIA, according to credible literature, continued to make forays into Soviet Central Asia with the help of the Afghan Mujahideen during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. All this was possible because Americans had a firm hold on the military government in Pakistan in those days.

The latest Pakistani denial of the media speculation that Pakistan was providing military bases to the United States or any other country came in the first week of May 2024, “this speculation is completely unfounded, and we reject it. There is absolutely no basis for these social media speculations,” Foreign Office spokesperson Mumtaz Zahra Baloch told reporters at her weekly briefing. The US military statement that it wanted to have a base in the environs of Afghanistan came not long after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Since then, Russia has invaded Ukraine and nuclear sabre rattling between western political block and the Russian Federation is becoming louder and louder. US-China relations also have developed a military dimension. In other words, Washington needs military bases in this region for reasons other than simply keeping an eye on Afghanistan.

The Pakistan foreign policy establishment however, seems inclined on providing a solid base to nurture Pakistan-Russia and Pakistan-China relations. Both countries are ready sources of relatively cheaper military hardware for Pakistan. Sometimes in 2018, western countries collectively decided to impose a ban on military supplies to Pakistan. This increased the value of Pak-Russia and Pak-China relations for the Pakistan foreign policy establishment. In the wake of Western restrictions, Pakistan received at least three major weapon systems from China. But our foreign policy seemingly took another turn afterwards—our powerful Army chiefs, both General Bajwa and General Asim Munir, started focusing on two themes in their public remarks — to transform Pakistan into a regional connectivity hub and to insist that Pakistan would not become part of any superpower politics at the world stage. Both commanders visited Washington after making these assertions in their public speeches.

Washington was quite comfortable militarily when the Pakistani government asked the US military to vacate bases in Pakistan in the wake of the Abbottabad raid that killed OBL. It still had bases inside Afghanistan and Central Asia. And there were no signs that a new Cold War would commence as soon as the US withdrew from Afghanistan. If the Pakistan authorities really have refused bases to Americans, as they claim to have done, then there is little reason for the US to remain comfortable about its position in South Asia, at least from a military point of view. 

The moment North Korean forces crossed the 38th parallel to invade South Korea in June 1950, the United States' understanding of the nature of post-World War-II international relations underwent a dramatic change—the Western world led by Washington started to perceive the Soviet Union as an aggressive, uncontrollable military power. There was an uneasy stalemate prevailing in Europe, where US military forces were facing Soviet land forces across the Iron Curtain.

The US had a strong military presence in Western Europe, and therefore the chances of Soviet forces invading Washington’s Western European allies were minimal. Soviet adventurism in East Asia, represented by the North Korean invasion of South Korea, had been countered by American forces launching a counter-offensive with all of the weaponry at their disposal.

In Washington’s calculation, the most vulnerable theatre, close to the Soviet Border, left undefended in the face of Soviet aggression was the Middle East. The Middle Eastern Arab countries were underdeveloped, with no military machine or manpower to defend themselves against the Soviets. The Arab countries of the Middle East were dangerously prone to social and political unrest, and hence were understood to be unreliable military partners against Soviet communism.

Faced against this situation, Washington’s strategists and military planners turned their attention to Pakistan—an emerging South Asian Muslim nation, with a strong martial tradition and lands close enough to the Soviet borders to be used to house bombing bases or surveillance stations.

The then US Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, was extremely impressed by the young military officers of the Pakistan Army—as he later testified before US Congressional committees—and saw them in complete contrast with the unreliable Arabs. US military and foreign policy planners started to think in terms of giving Pakistan a permanent place in the joint Middle Eastern defense structures. And thus began the arming of the Pakistani armed forces.

Pakistan’s civilian leadership at that time, including Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan was well aware of the debate in Washington’s policy making circles that saw Pakistani land forces acting as the first line of defense against a Soviet invasion of the Middle East. American military planners believed that Pakistani forces could slow down the march of Soviet invading forces before Western allies made a decisive military intervention in the Middle East, as they had done in the Korean peninsula. It is generally believed that Pakistani land forces in those days carried out joint exercises with Western military planners to recapture Middle Eastern oil field after their hypothetical capture by the Soviet Union.

US efforts to bring Pakistan into the Middle East defense structure in the 1950s remained a hollow promise. The Americans were eyeing Pakistan's military manpower as a resource to counter a Soviet incursion against the ‘free world.’ This fear of Soviet incursion heightened manifold after North Korea attacked South Korea with help from China and the Soviet Union. The Americans, however, were sure that it would be difficult to compel Pakistan to defend the Middle Eastern oil fields without resolving the Kashmir dispute and neutralizing India as a military threat. Throughout this period, the Americans were clearly funding and arming Pakistani armed forces with the defense of the Middle East in mind.

There is little chance that Pakistan would once again join the American camp—we are too clearly dependent on the Chinese and Russians for military hardware and on China for our economic and financial viability. 

US military planners in the 1950s were clearly obsessed with the strategic location of Pakistan territory. As, in their opinion, US bombers based in the “Karachi-Lahore Area”—to use a term often mentioned in US policy papers of that era—could easily reach both the Middle Eastern oil fields as well as Soviet territory.

It was generally believed then that the cost of Pakistan becoming a partner in any military adventurism or any military conflict in the region would be very high. After receiving arms from Washington, the chances of rapprochement with India just evaporated into thin air, tensions in the region increased dramatically and Kashmir became an intractable problem with no solution.

In May 1954 a Mutual Defense Agreement between the USA and Pakistan was signed at Karachi, under which the USA undertook to provide military equipment and training for the Pakistan Army. Simultaneously, it was announced by both the governments that it was not a military alliance nor were any military bases for the USA in Pakistan agreed upon. Before this agreement was signed between the two countries, the then US President Eisenhower announced that USA had decided to give military assistance to Pakistan in a move to strengthen the defensive capabilities of the strategic Middle East and simultaneously, promised to consider sympathetically India’s requests for military aid if India decided to seek such assistance.

Pakistan’s role in the Afghan mujahideen’s resistance against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the Pakistani state’s complicated relationship with militancy that developed in the midst of the War on Terror following the 9/11 attacks is a history that is well known. 

But times have changed since the American withdrawal from Afghanistan.

There is little chance that Pakistan would once again join the American camp—we are too clearly dependent on the Chinese and Russians for military hardware and on China for our economic and financial viability. Our precarious economic and financial situation provides an ideal environment for Washington’s diplomatic pressure to work. It is for experts to determine whether we are more dependent on Washington for our continued economic and financial viability, or whether we are more desperately dependent on China. 

One thing is for sure, our military leadership has clearly showed some signs of reverting back to their Washington links, in desperate efforts to keep treading water. It is no secret that there is talk in Islamabad that our military leadership tried to sell the idea of Pakistan emerging as a regional connectivity hub between South Asia, Southwestern Asia and Central Asia, which by its very nature, is a very non-military domain.

The writer is a journalist based in Islamabad.