Continuing from my previous piece, third, it seems that before the Bonn Conference in December and, perhaps, even before the meeting of Afghanistan’s neighbours and near neighbours in Istanbul, in November, the Karzai administration will conclude a strategic partnership. According to Marc Grossman, 85 per cent of the work on the document has been completed. Dafdar Rangin Spanta, Afghanistan’s national security adviser has, in an interview with the Telegraph, said that Afghanistan had proposed an agreement for 10 years and that the Americans would not have independent bases but would be guests at Afghan-manned bases. He also said that for the training mission, thousands would be needed and that the Americans would also provide air support for Afghan operations. Based on earlier press reports, my own estimate is that there will be about 25,000 Americans at bases in Bagram, Shindad, Kandahar, Mazar and Jalalabad. It is my further conjecture that while the Americans may withdraw earlier than the 10 years, from these bases — in the event of a reconciliation — they will try very hard to retain a presence at Bagram, the listening post for Central Asia.
The Telegraph report says that Iran will publicly and Pakistan will privately object to this extended American stay. Whether this reflected Spanta’s view or the correspondent’s own assessment is not known. Speculation about Pakistan’s reservations may flow from reports appearing earlier that in top-level Pakistan-Afghan meetings, Pakistan had proposed to Afghanistan that it should abandon the alliance with the United States and look to China and Pakistan instead for assistance. This report had been unconvincingly denied in Pakistan and, as far as I know, it had elicited no comment from China but received a great deal of play in Afghanistan.
According to the report, the Russian ambassador in Kabul has already made his country’s objections known, arguing that Afghanistan needs development assistance not military bases. It is apparent that while the insurgency continues, the Karzai administration will feel, despite the reservations of its immediate or far neighbours, that it has no choice but to enter into some such agreement with the Americans. They will argue that by limiting the term to 10 years and by not giving the Americans independent bases, they have done as much as they could to satisfy the nationalist fervour of their own people and to allay the apprehensions of their neighbours. Were they to turn down the agreement, the Americans and Nato would still withdraw by 2014, leading to the collapse of the present regime, a drastic cut in foreign aid, a Taliban offensive to take over and then the onset of civil war as the ethnic minorities resisted Talibanisation. Pakistan has to understand that Afghanistan will enter into this agreement. Opposing it will only add another layer of distrust to Pakistan-Afghanistan relations, particularly when there is no viable alternative on offer. It cannot afford the collapse of the Karzai administration. Pakistan, of course, will recognise that in seeking a prolonged military presence in Afghanistan, the American objective is not only to ensure that Afghanistan never again becomes a safe haven for al Qaeda or al Qaeda-minded groups, but also to “disrupt and dismantle al Qaeda and its support networks that it believes exist in Pakistan”.
Pakistan can be sure therefore that, failing successful reconciliation or action on Pakistan’s own part, the bases in Jalalabad and other Afghan cities will be used to maintain the ongoing barrage of drone attacks on the hideouts in Pakistan of al Qaeda or groups such as the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan and the Haqqani network, which they believe support and provide safe havens to these militants and to attack the routes by which they enter into the famous P2K (Paktia, Paktika and Khost, the Afghan provinces which in addition to North Waziristan in Pakistan are regarded as the stronghold of the Haqqani network). But Pakistan should also calculate that while it will be more difficult, the Americans, in the absence of Afghan bases, will negotiate new usage rights at the base they currently operate in Kyrgyzstan and perhaps gain access to the base in Tajikistan (where the Indians had stationed aircraft) to continue these attacks. They may become somewhat less effective since the longer flying time may make it difficult for the drones to hover over the targets for long enough and targeting may therefore become less accurate but it should be regarded as certain that the American campaign against al Qaeda safe havens will not stop.
(To be continued)
Published in The Express Tribune, August 30th, 2011.
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