Regional ferment: Questionable US moves as Turkey moves closer to China-Russia-Iran-Pakistan bloc

A US drone base in Pakistan will adversely affect Pakistan-China relations;  it will arouse Taliban anger with whom Islamabad is negotiating to curb the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), writes Lt Gen P. C. Katoch (retd) for South Asia Monitor

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Pakistan-China-Iran-US

According to US media, the Joe Biden administration is nearing a formal agreement with Pakistan to use its airspace for military and intelligence operations to monitor Afghanistan and bring the remaining American nationals and Afghan supporters of the US stranded in Afghanistan. The CNN report goes on to state that some of these individuals have been extracted via Pakistan, but their number, dates and whether they were moved to Pakistan by land or air have not been mentioned.

In exchange for using Pakistani airspace, Washington will support Islamabad’s counterterrorism missions and help it manage its relations with India. Islamabad has rejected the report that claimed that the US is nearing a deal to use its airspace for airstrikes in Afghanistan but said Pakistan and the US have longstanding cooperation on regional security and counter-terrorism and the two sides remain engaged in regular consultations.

Significantly in a media interview in June, Prime Minister Imran Khan had categorically stated that Pakistan would “absolutely not'' allow any bases and use of its territory to the US for any sort of action inside Afghanistan.
 
The US does want to extricate its nationals and Afghan supporters still stuck in Afghanistan but its relations with the Taliban remain at the level of providing humanitarian aid. Neither has it released Afghan money frozen in the US nor will it recognize the interim Taliban government until the Taliban meets certain requirements including an ‘inclusive’ government and human rights.

The Taliban was highly critical of the US drone strike on a vehicle that killed 10 members of a family in Kabul on August 29 mistaking it for ISIS cadres traveling in the moving car. The US recently killed Al Qaeda leader Abdul Hamid al-Matar in a drone strike in Syria, after having killed another leader Salim Abu-Ahmad in late September.

But the Taliban has said that the US has no right to undertake airstrikes on Afghanistan. The hardline Sunni Islamist group has claimed that US airstrikes have also in the past has killed Afghan civilians who were not terrorists.

US-Pakistan deal?

As for the use of Pakistani airspace in the purported deal mentioned in US media, it hints at a base or bases required for US drones. The US was looking for such base (s) in neighboring countries in the final phase of US troop exit from Afghanistan as well. The issue must have been discussed between the US and Pakistan even then but did not work out. It may be recalled that on December 11, 2011, the US had vacated the Shamsi airbase in Pakistan in the face of intense opposition to its presence on Pakistan soil.

If at all the purported US-Pakistan deal is being discussed, it could be between the Pentagon and the CIA with Pakistan Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa or ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence, Pakistan’s spying agency) taking advantage of the rift between Imran Khan and the army powers that be on the appointment of the new DG, ISI. But even with the possibility of Imran Khan being removed or a military coup in Pakistan, the army chief will find it difficult to allow a US drone base in Pakistan.

A US drone base in Pakistan will adversely affect Pakistan-China relations;  it will arouse Taliban anger with whom Islamabad is negotiating to curb the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Helping Pakistan in counterterrorism will entail US drone strikes against TTP (not ISIS-ISKP which is linked to CIA and ISI) on Afghan soil which will not be acceptable to the Taliban. However, for counterterrorism within Pakistan, the Pakistani military can use its drones.

In March 2015, Pakistan had publicized it was using drones against militants operating in its territory in the North Waziristan tribal region. Pakistan was then employing the homemade (with Chinese assistance?) Burraq drone which can carry air-to-surface laser-guided missiles.

In recent years, there have been reports of Pakistan having acquired Chinese-made CH-4 drones – the same as those used by Saudi Arabia against the Houthi rebels in Yemen. Last year the Chinese media announced the government's decision to supply 50 Wing Loong drones to Pakistan but these have not materialized.

The only lure that the US can offer to Pakistan is money considering the country’s economy is in the doldrums. To some extent helping Pakistan ‘manage’ its relations with India may be true. If news reports are to be believed, India's National Security Adviser Ajit Doval is convening a meeting on Afghanistan in November for which his Pakistani counterpart Moeed Yusuf is among the invitees.

This development has taken place despite New Delhi maintaining in recent years that terrorism and talks cannot go together and that Pakistan has upped its proxy war in India’s union territory Jammu and Kashmir through targeted killings of Hindus and Sikhs.

US under pressure

The Biden administration is under pressure to evacuate the balance US nationals and Afghan supporters out of Afghanistan. The US media report of the airspace deal in the offing with Pakistan may have been planted to pacify the American public at home.

The US appears to be going through a bad phase with sanctions pushing countries into the China-Russia camp. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has ordered the expulsion of ambassadors of the US and nine other Western countries for demanding the release of civil society activist Osman Kavala.

Erdogan could dump the US-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and join the China-Russia-Iran-Pakistan bloc. He has joined hands with Tehran to support Palestinian militant group Hamas and Lebanese Shia organization Hezbollah against Israel and perhaps views joining China-Russia as more advantageous. Such a development would be adverse for South Asia, particularly India.

(The writer is an Indian Army veteran. The views expressed are personal.)