Jun 18, 2021 - World

Pakistan PM will "absolutely not" allow CIA to use bases for Afghanistan operations

Pakistan will "absolutely not" allow the CIA to use bases on its soil for cross-border counterterrorism missions after American forces withdraw from Afghanistan, Prime Minister Imran Khan tells "Axios on HBO" in a wide-ranging interview airing Sunday at 6pm ET.

Why it matters: The quality of counterterrorism and intelligence capabilities in Afghanistan is a critical question facing the Biden administration as U.S. forces move closer to total withdrawal by Sept. 11.

  • The Biden administration also is exploring options in Central Asia to maintain intelligence on terrorist networks inside Afghanistan, but that is complicated for a different reason: Those countries are in Vladimir Putin's sphere of influence.

Where it stands: Despite an uneasy relationship with Pakistan, whose military has deep ties to the Taliban, the U.S. has conducted hundreds of drone strikes and cross-border counterterrorism operations from Pakistani soil.

  • But Khan, who was elected in 2018, was unequivocal: Pakistan will not allow the CIA or U.S. special forces to base themselves inside his country ever again, he told Axios.

Between the lines: Khan has long opposed Pakistan cooperating with the U.S. war on terror, but the reality is that he also has no choice but to say this publicly.

  • Close observers say it would be political suicide for Khan to embrace the presence of the CIA or special forces on Pakistani soil.
  • American officials privately are still hopeful they can come to a covert arrangement with Pakistan's powerful military and intelligence services.

CIA Director William Burns did not meet with Khan when he made an unannounced trip to Islamabad recently to meet with the head of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency, amid questions about how the CIA will adapt after two decades of intelligence and paramilitary operations in Afghanistan.

  • Earlier this month, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said the U.S. has had "constructive discussions" with Pakistan about ensuring Afghanistan will never again become a base from which terrorist groups can attack the U.S., but he declined to go into specifics.

What's next: Burns has warned of the "significant risk" of al-Qaeda and ISIS regrouping in Afghanistan. "When the time comes for the U.S. military to withdraw, the U.S. government's ability to collect and act on threats will diminish," he testified in April. "That is simply a fact."

  • Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told Congress this week that it will take militant groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS possibly two years to develop the capability to strike the U.S. homeland.

The bottom line: That risk will only increase if the Afghan government collapses and the country falls into a civil war, Joint Chiefs of Staff chair Mark Milley testified.

  • Getting Pakistan on board with the peace process will be the pivotal factor, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said last month in an interview with German newspaper Der Spiegel: "The U.S. now plays only a minor role. The question of peace or hostility is now in Pakistani hands."
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