KARACHI -- When U.S. defense official David Helvey told the Senate that the Pentagon was exploring the possibility of basing U.S. forces in neighboring countries to provide over-the-horizon counterterrorism support to the Afghan government, he stirred debate in Pakistan, which has provided similar arrangements to the U.S. in the past, and caused some experts to wonder whether such a scenario might alter the U.S.'s position on China's Belt and Road Initiative.
"Pakistan has played an important role in Afghanistan, and they have supported the Afghan peace process. Pakistan also has allowed us to have overflight and access to be able to support our military presence in Afghanistan," Helvey told a Senate committee on 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 critical."
Following Helvey's comments, media outlets in Pakistan began reporting that the U.S. is seeking military bases in Pakistan. Islamabad quickly rejected the reports. "There is no U.S. military or air base in Pakistan, nor was any such proposal envisaged," Foreign Office spokesman Zahid Hafeez Chaudri said in a media statement.
Pentagon press secretary John Kirby on May 24 elaborated: "We're exploring a range of options and opportunities to be able to provide a credible and viable over-the-horizon counterterrorism capability, and there's lots of ways you can do that. Overseas basing is just one of them."
There have reportedly been three high-profile telephone calls between Pakistan's army chief and the U.S. defense secretary in the last three months and one face-to-face meeting between the national security advisers of the two countries. Experts believe that discussions relating to U.S. bases in Pakistan are definitely underway.
Asfandyar Mir, a South Asia security analyst at Stanford University, argues that from the U.S. perspective, regional basing is important to monitor and target regional and transnational terrorism threats that might emerge following the U.S. drawdown from Afghanistan.
"These potential bases could anchor the U.S.-Pakistan relationship in a, on balance, cooperative trajectory for a period of time, which has remained tense for the last few years. It will also ease the threat of sanctions against Pakistan and might lead to a resumption of military and economic U.S. aid," he told Nikkei Asia.
At the same time, experts believe that hosting U.S. bases could result in the generation of hostilities between Pakistan and the Afghan Taliban.
Lukasz Przybyszewski, a West Asia analyst for the Asia Research Center at Warsaw's War Studies University, told Nikkei that these bases would be interpreted by the Taliban as deceit by the U.S. in the Afghan peace process.
"The Taliban would be forced to seize control over the country and then to focus on cross-border skirmishes and infiltration on Pakistani soil," he warned. Przybyszewski said U.S. bases in Pakistan certainly would draw the militants' attention not only to these assets but also to Pakistani installations and other targets.
The Taliban's spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, issued a statement on Twitter criticizing U.S. bases in Pakistan or other countries neighboring Afghanistan. He warned that if any neighboring country allowed U.S. military bases on its soil, this would be construed as treachery and would go down in history as such. "We urge neighboring countries not to allow anyone to do so," he added.
Stanford University's Mir fears that if Pakistan hosts U.S. military bases, the Afghan Taliban may increase support to the Pakistani Taliban, to whom the Afghan Taliban remain firmly allied, to pressure Pakistan.
Since the announcement of the U.S. troop withdrawal, Afghanistan has gained huge importance in the context of the Belt and Road framework. Last week, Pakistani media revealed that Pakistan and China had decided to bring Afghanistan into the ambit of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project, the Pakistan component of Chinese President Xi Jinping's Belt and Road enterprise.
Experts believe that China might have a dual approach to the presence of U.S. troops in Pakistan, based on factors internal and external to Pakistan. Inside Pakistan, China might see the bases as a threat to its $50 billion CPEC project.
"China will not be happy about [U.S.] bases in Pakistan due to perceived threats to its investments, and Islamabad has to be mindful of this while deciding on allowing U.S. bases," James M. Dorsey, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, told Nikkei.
On Pakistan's external front, experts believe, U.S. bases could indirectly protect Chinese interests by 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 Turkistan Islamic Party in Afghanistan, and the spillover that might have for China's western periphery. So if the U.S. is able to monitor and degrade threats associated with al-Qaida, that is to China's benefit as well," 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 shielded Beijing's investments from attacks.
Similarly, there could be another unexpected outcome of U.S. bases in Pakistan: the reduction of U.S. hostility toward the Belt and Road Initiative.
"China wants the U.S. to be less hostile to the BRI and countries like Pakistan which are cooperating with China on BRI. A U.S. counterterrorism basing arrangement in Pakistan can help with that and may provide a type of insurance to China," Mir concluded.