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Can Pakistan’s foreign policy planners rebuff the US after their misadventure in Afghanistan?

According to the writer, Pakistan has long faced criticism from the U.S. and the Afghan government for sheltering elements of the Taliban and now the insurgent group that has been making rapid gains in much of Afghanistan as the U.S. troops are set to complete their withdrawal within weeks. Can Pakistan trust the US after this sudden withdrawal?

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The United States is pulling out its forces, and those of its allies, from Afghanistan. This is happening after a futile war that lasted for a little less than twenty years – America’s longest overseas war! The U.S.-led war in Afghanistan began in October 2001in response to the September 11, 2001, attack on New York’s Twin Towers.

The attack was masterminded by Al Qaeda, a terrorist organization which, the US alleged, was supported by the Taliban who were then ruling Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden, the Al Qaeda mastermind, was at that time hiding in Afghanistan and the Taliban had refused the US demand to hand him over.

Read more: Did 9/11 attacks halted Bush’s plan of invasion in Afghanistan?

Before invading Afghanistan the US, to the point of bullying, had grabbed Pakistan’s support in the “war against terrorism”. According to Musharraf, Pakistan’s military ruler in 2001, the US had threatened to “bomb Pakistan into the stone age” if it did not comply with the US demands.

Pakistan lured into fighting the US’s war 

Pakistan was thus coerced into facilitating the US in its Afghan war. This had happened after Pakistan served as America’s “Most Allied Ally” during the Cold War, a period during which, according to John Foster Dulles, India had been “sitting on the fence” under Nehru’s enigmatic concept of Non-Alignment.

As a result of the US coercion, Pakistan provided its airspace for transportation of coalition troops and equipment to the Afghan war zone, and for launching drone attacks in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan. American drone attacks were carried out under the pretext of targeting the Taliban and Al Qaeda militants who used Pakistani territory as marshaling areas for conducting operations against the coalition forces. Whereas scores of militants were killed in these drone attacks, the attacks also caused heavy collateral damage to innocent civilians.

According to the Department of State, during the last twenty years, the US had spent around USD 800 billion on its military operations in Afghanistan. The US strategy to sledgehammer the militants should have completely decimated the Afghan resistance. The opposite happened, forcing the US to start negotiations with the Taliban.

Read more: Pakistan was wrong to get involved in US’ war on terror, had nothing to do with 9/11:…

Why had the US-led coalition forces, despite their tremendous firepower, failed in Afghanistan? In the rough terrain of Afghanistan, the coalition forces, mostly mechanized, were ineffective against small Taliban groups which used hit and run tactics and did not present a tangible target to the enemy. In mountainous terrain and built-up areas, armor protection and firepower give a false sense of security to the tank crews and infantrymen cloistered inside the APCs/IFVs.

US’s failure

Even with a combined armor-infantry attack against a static defense to clear the objective overrun by the tanks, mechanized infantry is of little value unless it dismounts, runs through the minefield, attacks the defender, and overcomes the enemy in hand-to-hand fighting. This is what some of the armies trained in mechanized warfare are averse to. This is why the Soviet forces had failed in Afghanistan. The same happened to the US-led coalition forces.

Colonel Imam, an ISI handler of the Afghan Mujahideen, who had participated in the Mujahedeen’s various battles against the Soviet troops, considered the Soviet soldiers head and shoulders above the American troops who streamed into Afghanistan during the US invasion. Imam was killed by the Pakistani Taliban in the wake of 9/11. Moreover, during the twenty years of presence of Coalition forces in Afghanistan, they had failed to raise the Afghan National Army to a level where it could take on the Taliban after the withdrawal.

Read more: How US coerced Pakistan into war on terror

The US is beating a retreat from Afghanistan without achieving even a few of its strategic objectives for which it had invaded this country. Twenty years is too long a period to be called a “hasty retreat”. The US now wants Pakistan to provide military bases from which it intends to control the situation in Afghanistan.

This time, considering its experience spanning more than half a century of a roller-coaster relationship between the two countries, Pakistan is in no mood to oblige Uncle Sam. In the prevailing scenario, is it prudent for Pakistan’s foreign policy planners to snub the wounded giant?

Can Pakistan snub the US?

Despite the bitter experiences in the past, Pakistan needs the US even as the US needs Pakistan’s help for its face-saving in Afghanistan. The relationship between the two countries had always been transactional, and it should remain such in the future also. Whereas Pakistan has come a long way in achieving self-reliance in most of its defense requirements, it still has a very fragile economy that needs indirect financial support and cutting-edge military technology which only the US can provide. The specter of remaining on the FATF grey list and the need for heavy loan transfusions from IMF, World Bank, and Asian Development Bank, will keep Pakistan dependent on the United States for times to come.

Despite the rhetoric about refusing military bases to the United States, Pakistan is a “Major Non-NATO Ally (MNNA)”. According to the US Department of State, MNNA status provides Pakistan certain benefits in the areas of defense, trade, and security cooperation. Whereas the defense and trade cooperation with Pakistan is conveniently muted by the US, it demands security cooperation from Pakistan. This security cooperation, in the context of the US-Pakistan relationship, commits Pakistan to provide its airspace to the US for carrying out future military operations in Afghanistan.

Read more: Crime trumps Terrorism; war-torn Afghanistan problems increases

Hence, bases or no bases, US transport and combat aircraft will continue to use Pakistan’s airspace not only for provisioning the US-installed Afghan government(s) but also for launching its airpower through drones, helicopter gunships, and fighter aircraft to hit the Taliban targets. There will be an American air corridor, linking Qatar with Kabul that will continue to operate through the Pakistani airspace even after the withdrawal of the Coalition forces from Afghanistan.

Pakistan needs to up their military technology game 

Talking about the cutting edge military technology, PAF and Pakistan Army need to upgrade their F-16 fighter aircraft and replace the old Cobra helicopter gunships with new and more advanced helicopters. PAF has developed, with the Chinese help, JF-17 fighter aircraft to bypass the frequent US sanctions against Pakistan. But JF-17 is no match for the F-16. At best, it is a stop-gap arrangement that will be used to create synergy in air power in conjunction with F-16.

Read more: Pakistan Set to Export JF-17 Thunder Fighter Jets to 4 Countries

PAF has kept its aging Mirages operational through massive rebuild and cannibalization. The same is going to happen with the F-16 aircraft. The main hurdle is the US refusal to provide spares and maintenance assistance for F-16. PAF has the option to replace F-16 with the Chinese J-10 aircraft. But, again, J-10 is technologically inferior to F-16.

Likewise, Pakistan Army needs to replace its Cobra gunship helicopters with the state-of-the-art Black Hawk helicopters which the US has refused to provide. The Turkish gunship helicopter is also embargoed for Pakistan because it is powered by an American engine. Turkey is now arranging a Ukrainian engine for the helicopter.

The erstwhile Soviet bloc countries do not have the technology and metallurgy to produce fighter aircraft and helicopter engines as sophisticated as the United States and the EU countries. The Russian-origin engine that powers JF-17 emits smoke, requires a frequent overhaul and has a shorter life than aircraft engines powering the US and French aircraft.

Read more: Pakistan approaches China to purchase J-10 fighter jets for deployment against Indian Rafales

Short of providing bases to the US, Pakistan should bargain for the fruition of its strategic goals and interests. These may be translated into a win-win relationship between the two hitherto estranged allies.

Saleem Akhtar Malik was a Lt Colonel in the Pakistan Army. He holds an honors degree in War Studies, an MBA, and an M.Phil in Management Sciences. He is the author of the book Borrowed Power. The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space. 

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