Pakistani Special Services Group commandos climb down from a military helicopter during an assault drill to celebrate Defense Day, in Rawalpindi. Photo: AFP / Aamir Qureshi

With the US troop withdrawal underway in Afghanistan, speculation is rising that the US and Pakistan are poised to improve military ties – a strategic rapprochement that could raise antenna in both China and India.

The US Pentagon has announced it is looking for military bases in the region to monitor and prevent Afghanistan’s re-emergence as a hub of Islamic extremism and anti-US terrorism.

The bases would also seek to give the US a strategic hedge against Russia and China filling the vacuum of what is expected to be a largely – if not wholly – Taliban-led Afghanistan after US troops depart.  

While the US has yet to confirm it has secured new access to Central Asia bases, Pakistan has emerged as a leading candidate considering the US used bases there for much of the 20-year “war on terror” in Afghanistan.

Any such move would be controversial and require nuanced language to sell to the Pakistani public. The Pakistan Foreign Office has publicly denied that any “new agreements” have been reached with the US military on base usage.

Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi told media in Islamabad on May 11 “we will not allow boots on the ground or military bases on our territory.”

At the same time, Pakistan has confirmed that essential frameworks for air and ground support for US military forces signed back in 2001 remain valid.

Pakistan’s Frontier Corps march during a military parade to mark Pakistan’s National Day in Islamabad on March 25, 2021. Photo: AFP / Aamir Qureshi

A re-activation of these now dormant frameworks would put Pakistan very much back in the US orbit, opening new avenues of financial aid and strategic benefits.

During the “war on terror”, it was the same Air Lines of Communication (ALOC) and Ground Lines of Communication (GLOC) that allowed for extensive military cooperation between the two sides. 

As it stands, a crucial part of the ALOCs at that time were the US drone flights that flew from inside Pakistan from Shamsi airbase in the southwestern province of Balochistan to attack militant positions in Afghanistan.

However, a 2011 incident in which US-led NATO forces opened fire on two Pakistani border posts, now infamously known as the Salala incident after the area, killed 28 Pakistani soldiers and sparked nationwide protests that resulted in the US’ evacuation from Shamsi airbase and the closure of NATO’s supply line in Pakistan.

Later revelations that al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was secretly housed near a Pakistani military base – and a US stealth assassination mission that effectively violated Pakistan’s sovereignty – led to a further deterioration in strategic relations that arguably haven’t yet recovered.

Those incidents and persistent US perceptions Pakistan supports the Taliban and its Islamist drive represented a significant setback for a military relationship that through ups and downs goes back decades, with Pakistani cadets consistently attending top US military academies.

War on terror cooperation elevated Pakistan to the level of a major non-NATO ally of the US in 2004, granting it various military and financial advantages and privileges. The designation is also known to ease Pakistan’s access to International Monetary Fund (IMF) facilities.

Between 1999 and 2008, Pakistan received a total of $23 billion in loans and grants from the IMF and other international agencies. From 2008 to 2013, Pakistan received another $ 14 billion, including a $ 7.6 billion IMF bailout package.

Access to these funds sources was indirectly tied to Pakistan’s continued support for the US-led war on terror. When the Trump administration canceled military aid to Pakistan in 2018, it was due to Pakistan’s lack of cooperation and indecisive action against Pakistan-based Afghan Taliban groups.

Pakistani military bases where the US has historically had access. Image: Wikipedia

A re-activation of these frameworks in the present context could not only allow the US access to Pakistani military bases for flying drones to target Islamists in Afghanistan, but also serve to re-integrate Pakistan with the US.

As the Pentagon has confirmed, the US is currently in talks with Pakistan on bases. Islamabad has already agreed to give the US “overflight access” to support its mission in Afghanistan. This reflects Pakistan’s own willingness to develop a new partnership with the US.

When Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi recently met American lawmakers during a visit to the US, he outlined Islamabad’s vision of a “broad-based strategic partnership” that looks after the interests of both countries including in Afghanistan.

In a recent meeting between the two sides’ national security advisers in Geneva, both countries agreed to “advance practical cooperation.”

Pakistan National Security Advisor, Moeed Yusuf, is not only familiar with the US through his long engagement with the US politics as associate vice president for Asia at the Institute of Peace, a US government-backed institution  in Washington DC, but has been a long-time advocate of forging better ties.

His May 18 confirmation as Prime Minister Khan’s new national security advisor, analysts say, indicates Pakistan’s seriousness in pursuing a new partnership with the US. Since 2019 he had served as special assistant on national security to the prime minister.

The NSA meeting came after US Secretary of State Antony Blinken had earlier spoken twice to his Pakistani counterpart and Army Chief General Qamar Bajwa. Similarly, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has been in touch with Bajwa, who has effectively been running Pakistan’s foreign policy for the last three years.

While the US has its strategic reasons to pursue a new “practical” partnership with Pakistan, so too could Islamabad. Chief among them is Pakistan’s worsening economic situation.

Pakistan Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa, shown before the start of the Pakistan Day parade in Islamabad on March 23, 2019. Photo: AFP / Farooq Naeem

Some analysts assert that Pakistan might shy from reopening to the US to avoid alienating China, which has committed to investing as much as $60 billion in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) infrastructure-building scheme.

But that may not be the hurdle some perceive. Ever since coming into power, the incumbent Imran Khan government has taken a lackluster approach to the CPEC. In fact, soon after coming to power in 2018, his government has found loopholes to stall the CPEC and expressed intentions to “review” it.

The Joint Cooperation Committee (JCC), headed jointly by China and Pakistan and responsible for all major decisions related to the CPEC, in 2018 and 2019 meetings yielded no major new capital projects.

The 10th JCC meeting has already been postponed thrice, with China reluctant to approve a $ 6 billion loan for the Mainline-1 (ML-1) railway track, the single largest project under the CPEC.

Beijing’s reluctance, as some sources based in Islamabad told Asia Times, is due partly to the IMF’s still-strong influence over Pakistan, seen in its demands for greater transparency and oversight over CPEC funding.

Many US officials have previously called the CPEC – and the wider Belt and Road Initiative – a Chinese “debt trap.”

With the Pakistan-China relations already in trouble and with Pakistan’s economy in the Covid-19 doldrums, it has become imperative for Khan to turn to the US and look for avenues of “practical” cooperation that could give Pakistan’s access to new sources of foreign exchange and assistance.

A revived partnership with the US could also serve the Pakistan military’s financial interests. The military establishment’s coffers have dwindled ever since the 2010 implementation of the 18th constitutional amendment, which saw the transfer of major financial resources to the provinces in a decentralization drive.

That broke the military’s previously unfettered and largely unchecked access to state coffers. Trump’s suspension of US military aid in 2018 also hurt the military’s finances.

Servicemen of the Pakistani army special forces practice in fighting against terrorists in a residential area. Photo: AFP / Vitaly Timkiv / Sputnik

Restored and improved military ties with the US would not only conceivably re-open military aid flows from Washington, but also work to remove some of the financial constraints the country faces due to its “grey list” designation by a Paris-based watchdog as a money-laundering and terror-financing state.

While no real cuts have been made in recent years to Pakistan’s actual defense expenditures, it remains that the Pakistan military remains unwilling to allow any cuts to the non-development and/or non-defense items included in the defense budget.

To the contrary, the military continues, through its retired officials active on digital and social media as “defence analysts” to press the need to boost the budget to match rival India’s growing defense spending and military capabilities.

While it remains to be seen if Islamabad allows the US renewed access to its military bases, such “practical” cooperation would not be without precedent. Nor would it likely be resisted by the powerful but cash-strapped military establishment.

With general elections two years away, Khan’s government can likely envision how military cooperation with the US improves its access to IMF loans and World Bank grants that would help spark a semblance of growth to ward off a possible electoral defeat.

A military alliance with the US in the post-withdrawal era thus makes certain sense for Pakistan’s political and military elite and explains why they be more willing to develop a new military alliance than they are publicly letting on.