Since U.S. President Joe Biden announced on April 14 that the United States would fully withdraw from Afghanistan by September 2021, there has been discussion — among regional observers and, according to reports, among diplomats — about the possible staging of U.S. forces just over the horizon from Afghanistan.
The Taliban made clear in a statement on May 26 that it would not accept U.S. forces based in countries near Afghanistan.
In his April 14 remarks, Biden stressed that the administration would “not take our eye off the terrorist threat” and would “reorganize our counterterrorism capabilities and the substantial assets in the region to prevent reemergence of terrorists — of the threat to our homeland from over the horizon.”
There are limited options for Washington, most of which will require new basing or access agreements with neighboring countries. Among those reported being discussed are Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Pakistan.
On an official level, the United States has remained mum about its efforts and has not directly answered the question of where, precisely, “over the horizon” is. In reference to Pakistan, for example, the spokesman for U.S. Forces Afghanistan, Sonny Leggett, said speculation about the U.S. seeking to set up bases in Pakistan is “false.”
The tide appears to be running against Washington’s efforts to find a foothold, in any case.
On Monday, Zamir Kabulov, Russia’s presidential envoy for Afghanistan, said that Uzbekistan and Tajikistan had assured Moscow that basing U.S. troops in their countries was “impossible.” But his comment to the Izvestia newspaper was that, per his contacts, there had not been an official appeal regarding basing. The context of the question matters: Kabulov had been asked how Russia could prevent U.S. forces from gaining a foothold in Central Asia. His response was that Russia didn’t need to worry about it.
Tajik and Uzbek officials have remained relatively quiet, though various Uzbek authorities have pointed out that the country has a law in place barring foreign troops from being based on its territory. Kabulov, meanwhile, noted that Tajikistan is a member of the Collective Treaty Security Organization (CSTO) and suggested any basing deals would need to run through the organization.
U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad visited Tashkent, Kabul, and Dushanbe in rapid succession in early May, but it’s not clear from the resulting public statements whether the basing issue was discussed.
Following Kabulov’s comments, Pakistan weighed in next. Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi told the country’s Senate on Tuesday that Islamabad would not allow U.S. bases or permit Washington to launch drone operations from its territory.
“Forget about the past,” he said, in reference to previous arrangements under which the United States did use Pakistani territory to launch drone strikes.
Then on Wednesday, the Taliban added its voice to the chorus, stating sharply and unequivocally regarding foreign bases in neighboring countries: “God forbid, if such a step is taken once again, it will be a great historic mistake and disgrace that shall forever be inscribed as a dark stain in history.”
The Taliban statement urged neighboring countries to not allow foreign forces to be based in their territory and threatened consequences for any that do.
“As we have repeatedly assured others that our soil will not be used against the security of others, we are similarly urging others not to use their soil and airspace against our country. If such a step is taken, then the responsibility for all the misfortunes and difficulties lies upon those who commit such mistakes.”
The Taliban did not name specific countries.