The topic for today’s write-up just as easily could have been: “What does the US need military bases in Pakistan for?” Indeed, even a cursory review of newspapers and television talk shows in the country would show that the US seeking military bases in Pakistan is being viewed as a very real possibility and is one that is causing convulsive expressions of concern on the matter. Yet, I framed the question as I did because, in my view, the debate on US bases is a little misunderstood. First, let us address the core assumption that the US wants a military capability in Pakistan, or in some other country, to deter the Taliban. It might come as a surprise to some to know that the last time the US listed the Taliban as a matter of military concern was in 2017. Back then, the then-President, Mr. Donald Trump, had formulated a new American strategy in Afghanistan and had stated that an American victory in the country would include “preventing the Taliban from taking over the country”. Thereafter, this view seems to have changed – beginning with former president Trump himself. First he famously remarked, “Someday, after an effective military effort, perhaps it will be possible to have a political settlement that includes elements of the Taliban in Afghanistan.” Then, in February 2020, he oversaw the landmark “Doha Deal” with the Taliban. One cannot view the present situation without recourse to this “Doha Deal”. This deal, besides laying out US intention to withdraw from Afghanistan, also rested on a commitment by the Taliban to sever ties with Al Qaeda, counteract any subnational organization that may threaten US interest and not allow Afghanistan to be used to plan or launch attacks against the US or its allies. The current administration of Mr. Joe Biden inherited this deal and it has lived by it – barring a small change in timelines for the withdrawal. In fact, I would argue, President Biden went a step farther than Mr. Trump. In his historic Afghanistan speech delivered on April 14 this year, that set his administration’s Afghan policy and then set in motion the final US withdrawal, President Biden did not list disrupting, dismantling or defeating the Taliban as an American goal, aspiration or as a symbol of victory. Further, he poignantly forwent saying that the endgame in Afghanistan should center on, or have as its part, “preventing the Taliban from taking over”. Instead, President Biden reminded the Taliban that they ought not attack US forces as they withdraw and to honor their commitments to not “allow any terrorists to threaten the United States or its allies from Afghan soil”. Interestingly, in his 2,200 word speech, President Biden used the word “Taliban” only five times. What this means is that the US is not interested in militarily engaging the Taliban and is hardly interested in preventing them from taking power in Kabul. It will remain wary of the Taliban and will seek to support other groups which might serve American interests better. It might make some pretense to see the Taliban gain power through peaceful, perhaps democratic, means. However, all assessments coming from strategic, defense and foreign policy circles in the US – both from inside the government and from outside it – clearly seem to be viewing a Taliban takeover as a near certainty. More so, the recent battlefield gains by the Taliban (for example, the Taliban have captured seven additional Afghan districts in the past six weeks!) have not seemed to dent American resolve to withdraw. Thus, with a deal that rests on the Taliban ensuring US security by playing local “policemen” and this deal being the very rationale for US withdrawal, it makes no logical sense for the US to be seeking capabilities to strike the very group it must now rely on for its own extended security. So then, what is the US actually seeking? The US is seeking a 1 + (1+1) arrangement. Foremost, the US wants to ensure that the Taliban live up to their commitment of preventing other subnational groups from harming US interests. To do this, the US seeks to maintain only a reasonable intelligence capability and a limited military posture in the region. The intelligence capability, in the American perspective, would be to monitor what is going on in Afghanistan, identify any potential instances of collusion between the Taliban and US’s self-identified subnational adversaries and, make sure that the Taliban are keeping their end of the deal. Next, the US seeks a military posture that can have a deterrent value for the Taliban, especially by keeping alive the probability of kinetic American operations, if not a full military intervention. That is to say, they want to show the Taliban that they can launch effective military strikes against them, or others, if, that is, the Taliban do not keep their commitments. Next, the “1+1”. A) They intend to maintain just enough military capability in the region to be able to effectively strike any subnational groups that seek to threaten US interests. Here, what they really mean by this is a severely degraded, but still somewhat potent, Al Qaeda, ISIS, and other similar groups. To draw a parallel, one may look to ISIS in Iraq and Syria as an example of what is meant. Without occupying either of these two countries, the US occasionally acts against ISIS through use of precision strikes launched from manned and unmanned platforms. B) They want to develop and sustain an effective intelligence operation that can help them track such subnational groups and their activities. Indeed, this is borne out by numerous statements by several American officials. President Biden, April 14, “My team is refining our national strategy to monitor and disrupt significant terrorist threats not only in Afghanistan but anywhere they may arise.” To monitor and disrupt. CIA chief, William Burns, April 14, “The CIA (..) will retain a suite of capabilities, (..) that can help us to anticipate and contest any rebuilding effort (by Al Qaeda).” Anticipate and contest. NSA Jake Sullivan, April 18, “[President Biden] has no intention of taking our eye off the ball. We have the capacity, from repositioning our capabilities over the horizon, to continue to suppress the terrorist threat in Afghanistan.” Taking eye off the ball and terrorist threat (US does not classify the Taliban as a terrorist organization) So on. Now, given the above, one can also see that to do the above, the US does not really need to necessarily base its intelligence and military assets in Pakistan alone. In fact, it might serve the US better to have these bases in not one but several countries. In particular, Central Asian Republics provide the US vantage points on Afghanistan that Pakistan cannot. That is to say, by basing its assets in the CARs, the US can better monitor activities in the north, north-west and west of Afghanistan. This comes with the added caveat that anti-US sentiments in Pakistan are far higher when compared to those in the CARs. If one is to jog one’s memory a bit, one might recall street protests, blockade of US supply routes, attacks on the same, and, eventually, shut down of US facilities in the country in response to public anger – toward Raymond Davis affair, Osama Bin Laden operation, Salala attack, among others. Therefore, it makes little logical sense for the US to ‘put all its eggs in one basket’. That is to say, in event of an adverse public reaction, if Pakistan seeks to shut down probable American bases in the country, the US would stand to lose all or most of its intelligence and military capabilities. Here, then, that would be equivalent to going totally blind in Afghanistan. Finally, then, we must come to a more logical understanding of the situation. That is, the US has already repositioned most of its kinetic military capabilities in friendlier environs of the Middle East. Indeed, it has already moved its MQ-9 Reaper drones and other air assets to its longstanding bases in the Persian Gulf. Further, it has already supplemented these with its long-range strategic bombers and aircraft carriers, with their own complements of fighter-bombers. Thus, the Middle East is where the US will maintain the larger military bases. In Pakistan, as well as in Central Asia, it is seeking stations to maintain primarily its intelligence assets. These are close to Afghanistan and the proximity justifies their existence there. It is reasonable to assume that it would prefer that at least some of its drone operations can be conducted from here. This is so because basing drones or a few fighter-bombers close to the Afghan theater would help reduce reaction time. Yet, the US seems to be in no illusion on this matter and seems to expect refusal of such a manner of basing rights. Conversely, in event of likely refusal to host drones, the US seems to calculate that it can have Pakistan and CARs – but Pakistan in particular – compensate it with overflight rights and with some limited, even if controlled, access to their logistics (e.g. permissions to refuel aircraft). At this point, one may ask, ‘if intelligence units are all the US wants to post to Pakistan/CARs, then what is the harm’. The answer to this question is actually the real answer to the question we began with. The harm with allowing the US to base its intelligence operations in Pakistan and the CARs is that intelligence operations can demonstrate an unusual degree of “mission creep”. That is to say, they can quietly evolve by themselves and reorient their priorities. Simply put, American intelligence units using their time and resources in the region to spy on US rivals, especially China, Russia and Iran, is not an unimaginable possibility. In fact, this possibility takes on a higher degree of reality when one simply looks at the reasons the US gives for its rush to get out of Afghanistan: Its self-proclaimed need to focus on China, Russia, Iran, North Korea and others. In particular here, the US lists China as its greatest concern because it imagines itself to now be in an open “big power competition” with the same. And so, this is really why the US is so interested in establishing bases in Afghanistan’s periphery: So that it can build, develop, expand and sustain intelligence operations in Russia’s backyard and next door to its new, self-identified rival, China.