KARACHI – When US defense official David Helvey told the Senate that the Pentagon was studying the possibility of basing US forces in neighboring countries to provide on-the-horizon counterterrorism support to the Afghan government, he sparked a debate in Pakistan, which has provided the United States with insight in the past and has led some experts to question whether such a scenario could change the United States’ stance on China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
“Pakistan played an important role in Afghanistan and supported the Afghan peace process. Pakistan also gave us overflight and access to be able to support our military presence in Afghanistan,” Helvey told a Senate committee. May 20. “We will continue our conversations with Pakistan because their support and contribution to the future of Afghanistan, to the future of peace in Afghanistan, is going to be essential.”
Following Helvey’s comments, Pakistani media began reporting that the United States was seeking military bases in Pakistan. Islamabad quickly dismissed the reports. “There is no US military or air base in Pakistan, and no such proposal has been considered,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Zahid Hafeez Chaudri said in a statement.
Pentagon press secretary John Kirby explained on May 24: “We are exploring a range of options and opportunities to be able to provide a credible and viable counterterrorism capability on the horizon, and there are many ways to do this. is just one of them. “
There have reportedly been three high-profile phone calls between the Pakistani military chief and the US Secretary of Defense in the past three months and a face-to-face meeting between the national security advisers of the two countries. Experts believe that talks about US bases in Pakistan are definitely underway.
Asfandyar Mir, South Asia security analyst at Stanford University, says from a US perspective, regional presence is important for monitoring and targeting regional and transnational terrorist threats that may emerge as a result of the withdrawal. American from Afghanistan.
“These potential foundations could anchor the US-Pakistan relationship on a cooperative trajectory, on the whole, for a period of time, which has remained strained in recent years. It will also lessen the threat of sanctions against Pakistan and could lead to a resumption of US military and economic aid, ”he told Nikkei Asia.
At the same time, experts believe that hosting US bases could trigger hostilities between Pakistan and the Afghan Taliban.
Lukasz Przybyszewski, a West Asia analyst for the Asian Research Center at the University of Warsaw War Studies, told Nikkei the bases would be interpreted by the Taliban as a deception by the United States in the Afghan peace process.
“The Taliban would be forced to take control of the country and then focus on cross-border skirmishes and infiltrations on Pakistani soil,” he warned. Przybyszewski said US bases in Pakistan would certainly draw militants’ attention not only to these assets but also to Pakistani facilities and other targets.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid posted a statement on Twitter criticizing US bases in Pakistan or other countries neighboring Afghanistan. He warned that if a neighboring country allowed US military bases on its soil, it would be interpreted as treason and would go down in history as such. “We urge neighboring countries not to allow anyone to do this,” he added.
Mir of Stanford University fears that if Pakistan hosts US military bases, the Afghan Taliban could increase their support for the Pakistani Taliban, to whom the Afghan Taliban remain staunch allies, to put pressure on Pakistan.
Since the announcement of the withdrawal of American troops, Afghanistan has assumed considerable importance in the context of the Belt and Road framework. Pakistani media last week revealed that Pakistan and China had decided to integrate Afghanistan under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor Project (CPEC), the Pakistani component of the president’s Belt and Road enterprise. Chinese Xi Jinping.
Experts believe that China may have a dual approach to the presence of US troops in Pakistan, based on factors internal and external to Pakistan. Inside Pakistan, China could see the bases as a threat to its $ 50 billion CPEC project.
“China will not be happy to [U.S.] bases in Pakistan due to perceived threats to its investments, and Islamabad must take this into account when deciding whether to authorize US bases, ”James M. Dorsey, senior researcher at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, told Nikkei in Singapore.
On Pakistan’s external front, experts say, US bases could indirectly protect Chinese interests through attacks from militants based in Afghanistan.
“China is very concerned about the threat of transnational terrorists like al-Qaida and China-focused groups like the Turkestan Islamic Party in Afghanistan, and the fallout this could have for the western periphery of China. So if the United States is able to monitor and downgrade the threats associated with al-Qaida, it is also in China’s best interest, ”Mir said.
Przybyszewski agrees with this assessment. He believes that these bases could paradoxically be welcomed by the Chinese if the forces stationed there at least partially protect Beijing’s investments from attacks.
Likewise, there could be another unexpected result of the US bases in Pakistan: the reduction of US hostility to the Belt and Road Initiative.
“China wants the United States to be less hostile to the BRI and to countries like Pakistan that are cooperating with China on the BRI. A US counterterrorism deal in Pakistan can help and provide some sort of assurance to China.” , concluded Mir.