US talking to Pakistan, others for maintaining access to Afghanistan

US talking to Pakistan, others for maintaining access to Afghanistan

The United States Department of Defence has said that it is discussing various options with Pakistan and other states in the region, including the potential for having bases there, but the talks remain inconclusive.

At a recent congressional hearing, US Assistant Secretary of Defence for Indo-Pacific Affairs David F. Helvey told the Senate Armed Services Committee that “Pakistan has allowed us to have overflight and access to be able to support our military presence in Afghanistan”.

Following that, Foreign Office Spokesperson Zahid Hafeez Chaudri later told journalists in Islamabad that “there is no US military or air base in Pakistan, nor was any such proposal envisaged. Any speculation on this account is baseless and irresponsible and should be avoided.”

On Monday, which was the first working day since Friday’s Senate hearing where Helvey claimed having overflight access to Afghanistan, the issue resurfaced at an afternoon news briefing at the Pentagon.

“Is there anything that the US is looking for right now from Pakistan in terms of what happens after the withdrawal (from Afghanistan) is complete? Is there any update on other possible basing agreements in the region for counter-terrorism operations once the Afghan withdrawal is done?” a journalist asked.

“I don’t have any specific updates in terms of the potential for overseas bases there, after our withdrawal. These are obviously diplomatic discussions that are ongoing and are clearly not complete,” Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby responded.

“We’re exploring a range of options and opportunities to be able to provide a credible and viable over-the-horizon counter-terrorism capability, and there’s lots of ways you can do that. Overseas basing is just one of them. So, nothing to report on that front.”

Kirby indicated that the US was also consulting other countries in the region for having access to Afghanistan. “And I certainly wouldn’t speak to, in any greater detail, with respect to any one country,” he said.

Earlier, in his opening statement Kirby said that US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin called Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa on Monday “to discuss shared regional interests and objectives”.

During the call, “the secretary reiterated his appreciation for Pakistan’s support for the Afghanistan peace negotiations and expressed his desire to continue to build on the US-Pakistan bilateral relationship,” he added.

Responding to another question, Kirby said the US secretary’s discussion with Gen Bajwa was “very useful and dealt with a range of bilateral opportunities that our two countries have going forward”.

When a journalist asked if Austin discussed “a possible basing agreement” with Pakistan in his call to Gen Bajwa, Kirby said: “I’ll just leave it to the readout and the degree of specificity in the readout.”

Another journalist pointed out that Pakistan’s foreign ministry had ruled out the possibility of providing any base to the US military. The Pentagon officials, however, said he would not comment on inconclusive talks.

Read: No US bases to be allowed in country, says FM Qureshi

Another journalist reminded Kirby that the Trump administration had stopped security aid to Pakistan because of its alleged non-cooperation in the fight against terrorism. “Is this new administration reviewing that policy — where do you stand on that?” the journalist asked.

“At this time, US security assistance to Pakistan is still suspended, and I won’t get into speculating one way or another about if or whether that will change going forward,” the Pentagon official said.

“At least, can you say that there is a discussion about the security assistance to Pakistan to be resumed or it is on the table or not?” asked another journalist.

“I won’t go beyond what I said in the question previous,” Kirby responded.

The US has increased its consultations with Pakistan after President Joe Biden announced his plan to pull out all 2,500 US troops from Afghanistan by Sept 11.

The US and Pakistan also resumed high-level security talks on Sunday when US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan met his Pakistani counterpart Moeed Yusuf in Geneva. A joint statement issued after the talks said, “both sides discussed a range of bilateral, regional, and global issues of mutual interest and discussed ways to advance practical cooperation”.

Since 2011, when relations between the two countries began to strain, the US and Pakistan have had several summit level meetings, but Washington avoided high level engagement with Pakistani security officials.

Relations started to improve after 2018, when Washington launched a new push for peace in Doha, holding direct talks with the Taliban. Pakistan supported the talks and played a key role in persuading Taliban leaders to participate in the Afghan peace process. Washington publicly acknowledged Islamabad’s “positive role” in these talks.

The meeting between the two national security advisors followed back-to-back congressional hearings in Washington on the planned US withdrawal from Afghanistan. The discussions focused on how to maintain peace and stability in Afghanistan after the US withdrawal.

At the Senate Armed Services hearing, Helvey told the lawmakers that the US will continue its conversation with Pakistan “because their support and contribution to the future of Afghanistan, to future peace in Afghanistan, is going to be critical”.

At another hearing, US chief negotiator for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad said he believed Pakistan’s civilian and military leaderships recognised the economic benefit of having peace in Afghanistan and Washington was working on a plan to create “the potential (economic) connectivity”.

Read: Pakistan’s key role in Afghanistan echoes in US Congress

Last week in New York, Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi also held a series of virtual meetings with US lawmakers, telling them that Pakistan was seeking a broad-based, strategic partnership with America, which would also cover Afghanistan.

Earlier this month, Gen Bajwa visited Kabul where he offered support for the Afghan peace process in a meeting with President Ashraf Ghani in Kabul.

While reporting the visit, the US media noted that Pakistan “remains a key player in efforts to resolve the conflict between the Taliban and the Kabul government”.

The reports noted that in the past Washington accused Islamabad of harbouring militants, but in recent statements “Washington and other Western powers have acknowledged Pakistan’s efforts to push the militant group to take part in peace talks”.

At one of the congressional hearings, Ambassador Khalilzad described Gen Bajwa’s visit to Kabul as “positive,” adding that both sides had “discussed some steps” for bringing peace to Afghanistan and for improving relations between Islamabad and Kabul.

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