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.

Lucas Jackson/Reuters
U.S. Army soldiers lower the flag of the 1st Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division during a transfer of authority ceremony at Jalalabad Air Field in Nangarhar province May 3. The unit is departing Afghanistan after a year-long deployment in the volatile eastern region of the country.

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.

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.

Geographical decision

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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But if the US loses bases in Afghanistan in 2014, the US would have no good options for similar future operations. Moving clockwise around Pakistan’s border: Iran is a US enemy. Central Asia is blocked by massive mountains hostile to helicopter. China is a staunch ally of Pakistan. And India is such an archenemy that an attack from there could touch off a nuclear war.

That’s reminiscent of the situation the US faced in 1998 when then President Clinton ineffectively fired cruise missiles at an Al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan in the hopes of killing bin Laden.

In the end, bin Laden's eventual assassination relied on not only a better means of attack but on better human intelligence on the ground.

“A large footprint was very important – and I would say crucial – because in this case it [required] the linkages of technical intelligence and human intelligence,” says Mr. Kak. “Drones by themselves will not do the trick. You will have to combine that with ... presence and footprint.”

Pakistan involvement

Still, much of the crucial human intelligence to nab bin Laden appeared to be gathered in Pakistan, not Afghanistan. In recent years, the US succeeded in putting greater numbers of spies inside Pakistan.

The arrest of CIA contractor Raymond Davis earlier this year alerted Pakistanis to the extent of the agency’s activities. For weeks, Pakistan refused to release Mr. Davis, sending relations with the US into a freefall that finally hit bottom with the revelation that bin Laden lived in a military cantonment.

After Davis was released, Pakistan’s Army chief Ashfaq Parvez Kayani told the US that the CIA presence in Pakistan needed to scale down.

While it’s growing more difficult to put boots on the ground in Pakistan, intelligence work can still happen from Afghan bases near the border, argues Professor Gregory.

The US wants to maintain some security ties with Afghanistan, but it’s not clear yet what the strategic partnership declaration discussed in negotiations this month would entail. In a speech in February, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described it as a long-term framework for security cooperation.

“The United States will always maintain the capability to protect our people and our interests,” Ms. Clinton said. But “we do not seek any permanent American military bases in their country or a presence that would be a threat to any of Afghanistan’s neighbors.”

But many of Afghanistan's neighbors still hear "permanent bases" underneath the carefully-worded American language. Karzai himself has suggested that's what the US wants.

Bases are opposed by many in the region, most notably Pakistan, the Afghan insurgency, and many ordinary Afghans. The Taliban have made the exit of foreign forces their key condition in any peace process.

“It isn’t popular in Afghanistan, there’s no question about that,” says Gregory. “Karzai is making a lot of noise, but let us see if that does actually translate in the long term to shutting the US bases. I don’t believe that.”

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