The United States (US) has now expedited its military withdrawal from Afghanistan, with the US Central Command officials saying that 4-6% of the process has already been accomplished with the full withdrawal deadline set for September 11, 2021 by US President Joe Biden. However, as the US leaves after two decades of war, questions continue to linger as to what kind of military capacity, if any, would Washington want to, and be able to, maintain in the future.
Over the past few weeks, more than the composition of the US military presence, its geographic location outside the borders of Afghanistan has become a focal point of debate.
Pakistan, home to almost all the Taliban shuras, is having to now balance its relations and strategic play between the Taliban and the US. While Rawalpindi remains the key driver of both Taliban strength and US–Taliban negotiations, the challenge of giving the US military space post-2021 is not going to be an easy one for Pakistan.
In a recent interview, Pakistan’s foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, hinted that Pakistan could examine American requests for bases in exchange for large economic packages and commitments towards investment. With the challenge of access to a land-locked Afghanistan going to only intensify for the US, Pakistan is clearly hoping to use its location — once again — to enhance US dependence on it. With Iran on the one side, and Central Asian States such as Uzbekistan and Tajikistan under heavy pressure from Russia to disallow a US military presence, options today seem to be limited, and Pakistan may well benefit once again.
However, the Taliban, as it stamps its authority within the increasingly fractured Afghan political landscape and continues to use violence as a strong and effective leverage parallel to its “diplomacy”, has taken a strong position against US presence not just in Afghanistan, but anywhere in the region around it. The Taliban, in a statement published online, hinted towards military action against such bases, and the host countries of such bases, which may be used to launch counterterror and counter-insurgency operations.
This raises questions about the Taliban’s capacity to conduct such attacks, its traditional stance of having little interest on what happens beyond the Afghan borders, and finally its relations with Al Qaeda, which has the capacity and experience of such attacks.
Interestingly, the language used in the statement suggests that even Pakistan and its military could be fair game from a Taliban perspective, if they do indeed decide to host the US military for operations in Afghanistan. This, arguably, highlights a level of confidence and autonomy that the Taliban have achieved over the past few years as part of negotiations and diplomacy, and further, over the past 20 years of kinetically countering Western forces.
At the moment, the situation remains fluid. While the US-Pakistan relations are driven more by a military to military equation, the Biden administration has been comparatively cold towards Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan. This may complicate US attempts to leave the Afghan theatre with options in place for future use of force, if needed, in the Afghan theatre.
But an eventual nod by Pakistan to allow US military bases, despite the Taliban threat, would raise concerns in South Asia, specifically New Delhi, which has been pivotal in building the Quad security infrastructure in Asia along with the US. As analyst Ayesha Siddiqa has said, Pakistan even gaining a standing space in the Quad room, instead of a seat on the table, would be a desirable outcome from its perspective. Calling out the Taliban’s threat and allowing US to use its bases may accomplish this.
On the other hand, a failure for US to gain access to Pakistani bases, clandestinely or otherwise, may put more pressure on India to help the US with Afghanistan, something New Delhi has remained non-committal towards for a long time.
The recent shift by the US of its only deployed aircraft carrier from the Asia Pacific to the Arabian Sea to assist in its withdrawal from Afghanistan is a case in point of capacity constraints the US may highlight as it balances its military interests between West Asia and the rest of the region, and push others such as India to step up. Meanwhile, India has looked to integrate at least some of its strategic play in the Gulf with its broader Indo-Pacific outlook, with New Delhi singing up for access to strategic ports such as Duqm in Oman, not far from Bahrain, home to the US Fifth Fleet and Qatar, home to significant US military capacity operating in the larger West Asian region.
The Afghan theatre, despite a US withdrawal, will push strategic and tactical rethink far beyond Washington D.C. Countries such as India, managing multiple active and challenging foreign policy fronts, will be required to divert significant strategic thought and capacity towards the Afghan theatre in the coming months.