ISLAMABAD: Pakistani security experts have hailed Islamabad’s decision to avoid supporting US counterterrorism operations in neighboring Afghanistan.
The decision came after a Pentagon official claimed that Pakistan had allowed the US to use its airspace and ground routes as part of its Afghanistan campaign.
But Pakistan’s foreign office denied the claims, which will force the US to rethink its Afghan approach as its troops prepare to leave the war-torn country by Sept. 11 this year.
Experts said that the decision will avoid a repeat of “costly mistakes.”
Zahid Hafeez Chaudhri, Pakistan foreign office spokesperson, said in a statement on Monday: “There was no US military or air base in Pakistan, nor was any such proposal envisaged,” adding that any speculation on the topic was “baseless, irresponsible and should be avoided.”
Since 2001, Pakistan and the US have had a framework of cooperation for Air Lines of Communication and Ground Lines of Communication, but “no new agreement has been made in this regard,” the statement added.
The decision is a “step in the right direction,” experts said.
“Pakistan should have avoided repeating its costly mistake of providing airbases and ground routes for the US two decades ago,” Rustam Shah Mohmand, Pakistan’s former ambassador to Afghanistan, told Arab News.
“It should neither provide its airbases nor allow the US to use its airspace and ground routes. If we become a party with the US again, it will increase hostility against Pakistan in Afghanistan. This will even affect our relations with some factions of the Taliban,” he added.
Speculation on Pakistan’s involvement with the US campaign has grown since Gen. Kenneth McKenzie Jr., commander of the U.S. Central Command, told the US Senate that a fraction of troops will remain “stationed nearby Afghanistan” following the September withdrawal.
US President Joe Biden’s administration has said it is in talks with “several Central Asian neighbors of Afghanistan” to survey where it can reposition troops to prevent landlocked Afghanistan from becoming a militant hub once again.
However, Washington did not explicitly name Pakistan — which shares a nearly 2,600-kilometer border with Afghanistan — as a potential partner in the initiative.
In a phone call with Pakistani Army Chief of Staff Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa on Tuesday, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin expressed Washington’s desire “to continue to work together to further regional security and stability.”
Earlier this month, Bajwa had offered Islamabad’s support for the Afghanistan peace process during a meeting with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in Kabul.
The talks came amid a spike in violence as Washington began to reduce troop numbers starting May 1, ending the most protracted conflict in the country’s history, which began with the Taliban’s ouster in the 2001 invasion.
Retired Lt. Gen Amjad Shoib, a defense analyst based in Islamabad, said that while Pakistan did provide bases to the US in 2001, the “situation has changed now.”
He told Arab News: “The US will definitely use Pakistani airspace and ground routes for the withdrawal, but it has been made clear to them that Islamabad will not provide any airbases or other ground presence following that.”
Shoib warned about the impact of a US deal on Islamabad’s ties with Beijing, particularly on the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a multibillion-dollar infrastructure project that is central to China’s broader Belt and Road Initiative.
“China would not like any physical US presence in Pakistan. If we agree on any such arrangement, it will send the wrong message to the Chinese, and affect their strategic interests and the CPEC, which Pakistan would not want to happen,” he said.
Other experts highlighted the “strategic importance” of peace and stability returning to Afghanistan.
“A peaceful and stable Afghanistan is a strategic imperative not only for Pakistan, but also for the whole region,” Pakistan’s former foreign secretary and former ambassador to the US, Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhary, told Arab News, adding that Washington had a “particular responsibility” to ensure this outcome.
“To that end, every concerned country should extend its support. Pakistan has facilitated the Afghan peace process and cooperated with the Afghan government, as well as with the US, because we believe that a peaceful Afghanistan is in the best interests of Pakistan and the region,” Chaudhary said.
In March this year, Austin praised Pakistan’s role in the Afghan peace process and expressed the Pentagon’s “gratitude for Islamabad’s continued support.”
Pakistan has been closely engaged with Washington in initiatives, and supported the signing of an agreement between the US and the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, more than a year ago, which eventually led to the start of the intra-Afghan peace talks.