US Soldiers assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division prepare to board a US Air Force C-17 Globemaster III aircraft in support of the final noncombatant evacuation operation missions at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Afghanistan, August 30, 2021. Photo : AFP via EyePress / DOD

PESHAWAR – Although Pakistan officially acknowledged the landing of military planes carrying hundreds of US troops from Afghanistan at Islamabad airport on August 29, it’s still not clear why many are still lingering in the country and not returning to the US or Qatar airbase.

Gul Bukhari, a British-Pakistani journalist, columnist and rights activist, tweeted on Tuesday, “Question for anyone with some insight into this: With huge bases in Qatar & Bahrain, and thousands of five and seven-star hotels in the UAE, why have US military personnel been flown to Pakistan?”

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has denied that the US will be given access to Pakistan military bases after withdrawing from Afghanistan.

An American military presence would be controversial considering US forces violated Pakistan sovereignty in the mission to assassinate al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden, who was living secretly near a Pakistan military base, in May 2011.

In November that year, a skirmish between US-led NATO and Pakistani forces on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border killed 28 Pakistani soldiers and sparked nationwide protests that forced the government to withdraw US access to its Shamsi airbase and suspend NATO supply lines in the country.   

With that history in mind, Pakistan’s Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmad on August 30 confirmed the arrival of US troops but ruled out that they would remain in the country. In a press event in Islamabad, Ahmad revealed that the American troops who arrived from Afghanistan had been issued transit visas ranging from 21 to 30 days.

On Tuesday, Federal Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry tried batting on a sticky wicket by tweeting that a total of 10,302 NATO and allied forces landed at Islamabad airport and that 9,032 have already departed. “There were only 155 Americans out of total 10,302 people arrived Sunday and among them, only 42 are still here who would leave today,” he added.

A US Air Force crewman assigned to the 816th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron prepares to receive US soldiers assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division, aboard a US Air Force C-17 Globemaster III aircraft in support of the final noncombatant evacuation operation missions at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Afghanistan, August 30, 2021. Photo: AFP via EyePress News

That may or may not be true. Some have noted that reservations at major Pakistan hotels are still frozen and that four and five-star hotels in Islamabad, Karachi and even Peshawar are not taking booking requests, regretting politely that rooms are already booked.

That, of course, does not signify the presence of US troops in Pakistan but some have noted authorities should have lifted the three-week moratorium on making reservations if NATO and US troops have truly already departed the country.

Last month, the government put a moratorium on reservations at all major hotels in Islamabad, Karachi and Peshawar to arrange the accommodation for what the government said would be thousands of foreigners including diplomats, staff of foreign missions, journalists and others being evacuated from Afghanistan.   

Aimal Wali, president Awami National Party (ANP) Khyber Pukhtunkhwa and the son of ANP chief Asfandyar Wali Khan, said the hotel booking speculation was a smokescreen.

“The US Army is in Islamabad but not at any hotel. All pictures circulating of the US Army are edited. Where are they then? {In} A complex, which can accommodate more than 30,000 soldiers,” Aimal claimed in a tweet Tuesday.

“Mr. Absolutely Not” would you clarify the situation. Was the parliament informed? Even if you claim it is a safe exodus, why wasn’t the parliament taken into confidence? Mind it, they haven’t come to leave, they’ve come to stay,” he tweeted.  

As pictures of US Marines in the passenger lounge of Islamabad airport went viral on social media, with an online uproar claiming Prime Minister Imran Khan had reneged on a statement he gave in June to HBO’s documentary news series on Axios.

Khan had categorically said “absolutely not” when asked in the interview if Pakistan would allow the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to use Pakistani bases for cross-border counterterrorism missions after US forces withdrew from Afghanistan.

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan delivers a speech during the Refugee Summit Islamabad to mark 40 years of hosting Afghan refugees, in Islamabad, February 17, 2020. Photo: AFP / Aamir Qureshi

Shahid Raza, an Islamabad-based security analyst, told Asia Times that there was likely some tacit understanding between Washington and Islamabad on how to combat the apparent growing regional security threat posed by Islamic State-Khorasan (ISIS-K).

US President Joe Biden responded to ISIS-K’s suicide bomb attack that killed 13 US troops and at least 170 others at Kabul Airport on August 26 with “over-the-horizon” drone strikes on IS-K targets, said to be launched from Qatar.

Questions are now swirling if the US will be allowed to launch similar attacks from Pakistan.  

“Yes, there seems to be some tacit understanding between the US and Pakistan to counter the growing ISIS-K activities in the region, which is a mutual threat to be met with collective efforts.”

Raza said that ISIS-K is linked with Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which has recently ramped up its attacks on Pakistan state and associated targets. The Taliban freed many captured TTP fighters including a top leader after seizing control of the country.   

“The bulk of IS-K human resources has come from the TTP’s defectives who joined the group when it was launched in 2015 as an offshoot of TTP,” he added.

The organization, he said, not only posed a security threat to the US and Pakistan, but also China, Iran, Russia and even the Taliban.

“Pakistan is in a significant position to leverage the IS-K threat properly on a policy basis because it is going to be on the top of agenda items between the US and Pakistan. In the future, US-Pakistan collaboration on this issue will emerge more tangible,” Raza opined.     

Pakistan has a long, if not vexed, history of military cooperation with the US dating back to 1947. In 1959, then-military dictator General Ayub Khan allowed as many as 1,600 US forces to use the Badaber airbase in Peshawar for intelligence-gathering and spying on the erstwhile Soviet Union.

In 1970, the US forces exited and Pakistan Air Force resumed control of the base.

During Operation Enduring Freedom, former military dictator General Pervez Musharraf gave US forces logistical support for their units in Afghanistan to wage the war on terror.

Pakistani soldiers at Shamsi airbase in a file photograph provided by the Pakistani military’s public relations arm. Photo: Agencies

Musharraf also provided basing rights to the US military at Jacobabad airbase (Sindh), Shamsi airbase (Balochistan), Dalbandin base (Balochistan), Pasni base (Balochistan) and Samungli base (Balochistan).

Shamsi airbase was exclusively used to conduct drone operations in northwest Pakistan and housed several US military personnel. Blackwater employees were also involved in these operations. The CIA and US Air Force jointly developed the airfield, which the US was forced to leave in 2011.

US forces also used PAF base Nur Khan (Sindh), Tarbela Ghazi airbase (Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) and PAF base Peshawar (Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) for their operations in Afghanistan and the tribal stretch near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

In late May, the Pentagon claimed that Pakistan would allow the US military to use its airspace and have ground access to support its interests in Afghanistan after the US troop’s withdrawal.

David Helvey, assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific Affairs, said while briefing the US Senate Armed Services Committee that the US would continue to use these facilities in Pakistan to play a critical role in restoring “peace” to Afghanistan.

Pakistani officials, however, continue to deny this is the case as an unknown number of US troops “transit” from Afghanistan through Pakistan.