After bin Laden: Why the US wants military access to Afghanistan beyond 2014
Without a deal to allow US military access to Afghanistan beyond the 2014 date for withdrawal, the US ability to smoke out terrorists in Pakistan could diminish in the years to come.
New Delhi, India
Without an airbase on Afghan soil, the secret US air raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan would have been significantly more risky, perhaps prohibitively so. The operation highlights one of the reasons the US would want military access to Afghanistan beyond the 2014 date for withdrawal.Skip to next paragraph
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US negotiations in Kabul last month sent ripples of concern across the region that the US was seeking permanent military bases there. The outcry caused Afghanistan’s interior minister to announce that President Hamid Karzai now opposed such bases.
But a security agreement with Afghanistan will likely grow more urgent for Washington as long as US-Pakistan trust lies buried at sea with bin Laden. Without a deal, the US ability to smoke out terrorists in Pakistan could diminish in the years to come.
“I think that in a different context, the Americans might very well have been hoping that they could maintain and increase that footprint in Pakistan,” says Shaun Gregory, director of the Pakistan Security Research Unit at the University of Bradford. But given the building mutual animosity, the Americans “are not going to be able to guarantee a security presence from Pakistan. Which means: Afghanistan is it.”
The bin Laden raid illustrates why.
CIA chief Leon Panetta said that the US decided it could not work alongside Pakistan on the operation, because Pakistan might “alert the targets.” Launching the mission from inside Pakistan, therefore, would be impossible.
Instead, the US and Pakistani governments say the helicopters flew in low and fast from an airbase in Jalalabad, Afghanistan.
The geography of Pakistan dictated this decision. A Black Hawk helicopter can reach Abbottabad from Jalalabad in about an hour, while the flight from an aircraft carrier in the northern Arabian Sea would take 5 hours and 30 minutes, according to calculations by Indian Air Vice Marshal (retd.) Kapil Kak.
The longer flight time would have required a difficult inflight refueling at night and increased the chances of detection.
The Jalalabad route passes through mostly hilly terrain, whereas the country flattens out further south. A statement from Pakistan’s foreign minister explains that the US slipped by radar, thanks to the terrain, low-flying techniques, and the “latest technology.”
“The more distance you have to cover the more risk you take,” says Pakistani Air Commodore (retd.) Junaid Amin. The route from the ocean was so long, “they probably wouldn’t consider it.”
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