The US is running out of options as it looks to secure strike capability against terrorist groups after the Afghan withdrawal.
On May 2, officers of the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) visited Nasirabad, a dusty town in the western Balochistan province that borders Afghanistan and Iran. It was part of a scouting mission to pinpoint a location for constructing a new air base, a local government official told Dawn newspaper.
Nasirabad is not far from the Shamsi airfield that the United States used to launch drone strikes against militants in Pakistan’s tribal areas until 2011.
The report of a new air base came at a time when the US is struggling to figure out which country in the region will host its drones as it prepares for a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan.
It immediately stirred speculation that a potential air base in Nasirabad is somehow linked with Washington’s request to use Pakistani airspace for future missions to monitor and target Al Qaeda and Daesh in Afghanistan.
Pakistan’s top leadership including Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi have categorically stated that Islamabad has refused access of its bases to Americans. The PAF has also clarified that search for a new air base is a routine matter.
“No base will be allowed to the US by Prime Minister Imran Khan so long as he is in power,” a senior Pakistani cabinet minister told TRT World.
An old nemesis
Khan, who has been in office since 2018, has long opposed US military intervention in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s own tribal region. And it’s unlikely he’ll back down.
As an opposition leader in 2012, Imran Khan led thousands of people in a rally from Islamabad to the tribal areas to protest US drone operations.
“Pakistan has collaborated with the US in the past but always at a great political cost,” Tughral Yamin, an Islamabad-based security analyst and associate dean at the National University of Sciences and Technology (NUST), told TRT World.
The US has yet to publicly acknowledge Pakistan’s refusal to host its military aircraft and drones. Jake Sullivan, National Security Advisor to US President Joe Biden, instead, told a press conference earlier this month that the US has had “constructive discussions in the military, intelligence and diplomatic channels” in response to a question about a possible drone base in Pakistan.
The New York Times reported on June 6 that William J Burns, the director of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), recently visited Islamabad where he met Pakistan’s military chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa and the head of the ISI, Pakistan military’s intelligence wing, Lt General Faiz Hameed.
During the same visit, Burns had requested an audience with Khan but was refused. Khan has reportedly said he will only talk to his counterpart — Joe Biden.
The secret arrival of the CIA director at such a crucial time is being seen as Washington’s attempt to lobby Pakistan’s powerful military.
“Imran Khan might have a thin majority in parliament but he speaks his own mind. Ultimately it’s a political decision (about the base) and I don't think the military will have any objection to that” said Yamin.
The CIA-led US drone operation is widely unpopular in Pakistan. From 2004 and 2018, US drones carried out more than 400 strikes in the tribal areas located in the northern mountainous region. Between 424 and 969 civilians including more than 172 children were killed by bombs rained down by Predator and Reaper drones, according to The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ).
The only time the US accepted that one of its drone strikes killed any civilians was in 2015 when an Italian hostage along with another non-Pakistani in the custody of Al Qaeda was targeted.
“Armed drones have their own narrative. For instance in Pakistan they have become synonymous with perpetual surveillance and civilian communities terrorised while the Americans have even refused to take responsibility when something had gone wrong,” said Chris Woods of Airwars, which keeps track of the US drone attacks.
In the years leading up to his election, Khan continuously criticised past governments for allowing US boots on Pakistani soil.
“Imran Khan has been true to his word. There hasn’t been a recorded (CIA) airstrike within Pakistan since he came to power,” said Woods.
The CIA carried out the last drone strike in Pakistan’s tribal region in July 2018, the same month Khan won the election.
If Khan owes part of his electoral success to his defiance to US military intervention then there’s no reason for him to jeopardise his reputation by letting the Americans come back, said Woods.
An exit of a bloody legacy
Drones have been crucial to US military strategy since the Afghan invasion in 2001 drove out the Taliban regime. Over the years, drones have killed as many as 10,000 people in more than 13,000 strikes in Afghanistan. Hundreds of those killed were civilians.
Operated by ‘pilots’ from a military facility somewhere in the US, the drones actually took off from secret American bases in Afghanistan.
Unlike conventional jets, drones can loiter in the air for up to 40 hours, helping intelligence sleuths collect information about targets on the ground. The cameras in the ball-shaped sensor turrets of drones have advanced in the past decade just like the cellphone cameras. They allow an operator to clearly see if someone is holding a gun in his hand and follow a militant to an isolated location before he’s hit.
“In principle, yes, drones should be better at avoiding civilian deaths than conventional jets. However, in practice, it depends on the targeting practices of the operators and how relaxed they are,” said Professor Hugh Gusterson, an anthropologist at The University of British Columbia and author of the book Drone: Remote Control Warfare.
“Over time, Obama tightened targeting protocols to reduce civilian deaths, then (Donald) Trump relaxed them,” he told TRT World.
The tenure of former US President Barack Obama saw the largest number of drone attacks.
The US has expedited the pullout of its troops from Afghanistan since it signed a peace deal with the Taliban last year. Washington plans to remove its remaining 2,000 odd soldiers by September 11, the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks that started the war on terror.
Many of the US military bases have been vacated or handed over to the Afghan military, which experts say will face difficulty in fighting Taliban insurgents once foreign troops leave.
Searching for alternates
In what US officials have dubbed “over-the-horizon capacity”, Washington wants to station some of its drones and other military assets in one of Afghanistan’s neighbouring countries.
But that has nothing to do with checking the advances of the Taliban, the US Central Command (CENTCOM) commander Marine Gen. Kenneth F McKenzie Jr told the Military Times in an interview this week.
“I would tell you that the only thing we’re planning for right now — the only thing we’re planning for right now — is the ability to continue operations against al-Qaeda and ISIS (Daesh),” he said.
Finding a country — other than Pakistan — that will host US forces and drones is turning out to be a challenge.
“US drones could operate from other bases in the region, including from Turkey. In general you want drones to be stationed as close as possible to their targets,” said Gusterson.
“The less distance they have to travel to target, the less you spend on fuel and maintenance and the more flying time you spend on the mission itself rather than on getting to the mission. Drones fly slowly, so distance matters.”
Some Central Asian countries can offer a solution, but Russia would oppose such a move.
Tajikistan has in the past allowed US planes to refuel at one of its air bases near the capital Dushanbe. But Tajik President Emomali Rahmon is close to Moscow. He was the only foreign leader invited by Russia for the May 6 military parade.
US troops also used the Karshi-Khanabad air base in Uzbekistan between 2001 and 2005. The arrangement fell apart after Washington condemned Uzbek government for suppressing domestic protests there.
One narrative that’s being pushed around — such as in this April article by BBC’s security correspondent Frank Gardner — is that the US is wary of trusting Pakistan’s ISI that is accused of facilitating the Taliban.
But experts said it’s more a matter of logistics.
Bahrain and Oman in the Gulf are also possible candidates. Both countries host bases of the American NATO ally UK. But a flight from these countries can take hours for it to reach a target in Afghanistan.
“Biggest limitation is the range. Reaper drones have significant range but you want them as close to the region as possible because you want them in the air hovering as long as you possibly can,” said Woods of Airwars.
“And the further distance that they have to travel the less time they have in the air, which is of course the value of the drone.”