It is the season for leaks. No wonder Washington DC and Islamabad are dripping wet.
With the United States hastening its withdrawal from Afghanistan, there is a flurry of diplomatic activity happening in the region. There is an added factor too: how such activity is being reported across various media platforms and used as an extension of all stakeholders’ communication strategy. Everyone is talking and the white noise is red hot.
This heat is steaming out of the bases issue. The issue is that there are no bases to correspond with the chatter about these bases. Washington leaked first. At a congressional hearing a few weeks ago, a senior US staffer mentioned that the Biden administration was interested in securing a foothold in countries near Afghanistan for counterterrorism purposes. The leak reached Islamabad and triggered a media and political meltdown. Are we agreeing to allow the US to have military bases on Pakistani soil, asked incredulous journalists and politicians from the opposition benches. The noise decibel grew to a level where Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi had to stand up in parliament and make a policy statement that Pakistan would never agree to give the US any bases. The statement should have ended this matter there and then. It didn’t.
Then Islamabad leaked. Key people spoke to a cross-section of important political, diplomatic and communication-related people late last month and gave a detailed assessment of the situation in Afghanistan. “No boots on the ground either,” they said in categorical terms. The signalling was fairly clear: for Pakistan there are some red lines and allowing the US to launch any operations against the Afghanistan soil after their troops’ withdrawal was one such red line.
This leak was preceded by the leak from both Washington and Islamabad about the quiet meeting in Geneva between Pakistan’s National Security Adviser Moeed Yusuf and his US counterpart Jake Sullivan. It triggered further chatter about what exactly was going on between the two capitals at this critical juncture.
Those who have been watching this delicate art of leaking say there are two broad types of leaks: (1) Deliberate leaks meant to signal to the other side what cannot be communicated through formal official channels, (2) Unauthorised leaks aimed at creating complications for one side or the other. In the present context, most leaks fall in the first category.
Which is what makes The New York Times leak so mysterious. A story in the paper earlier in the week broke the news that the American CIA head had paid a quiet visit to Pakistan and had detailed meetings with army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa and DG ISI Lt Gen Faiz Hameed. The Times story touched upon the ‘hot button’ bases issue but said nothing was agreed upon. However, it did say that the Pakistani side made some counter-proposals for the bases that the US side was not ready to accept.
The story made a splash and once again raked up the issue that should have died down after the Pakistani foreign minister’s categorical statement. Whoever leaked the story to The New York Times — clearly an insider with knowledge of the CIA chief’s meetings in Pakistan — had a certain outcome in mind. Was this the first category official leak aimed at pushing US diplomatic aims regarding Pakistan, or was it the second category unofficial leak from within the Washington power labyrinth reflecting various pulls and pushes in the US establishment on policy towards Pakistan?
Whatever the case, Pakistan did not want to let the leak go answered. So on Tuesday, Islamabad counter-leaked. Wednesday’s papers — the major ones at least — carried stories quoting unnamed officials denying The New York Times story and reiterating that there was no question of Pakistan giving any bases to the US. The officials quoted in these stories did confirm that the CIA chief had visited Pakistan but said he did not ask for bases. This coordinated leak was a comprehensive response to any public signalling that may have been weaved inside The Times story.
What does this deluge of leaks tell us about the thinking inside the Red Zone? Conversations with multiple insiders confirm that Pakistan is looking to build a relationship with the US that goes beyond the relatively narrow give-and-take linked to American withdrawal from Afghanistan. Washington needs to have a clean withdrawal and does not want the label of defeat attached to it. Pakistan is a central player and therefore the needs, wants, and times have brought Washington and Islamabad/Rawalpindi together for constant, sustained and high-level engagement. Pakistan is utilising the opportunity this moment in time presents to lock onto a sustainable relationship that not only survives the US withdrawal from Afghanistan but builds upon it at a multi-sectoral level.
It was in this context that the NSA meeting in Geneva took place last month. Both sides had come prepared and talked about engaging in a wide array of areas including commerce, investment, military cooperation as well as the evolving situation in Afghanistan. In this meeting too, according to Red Zone insiders, the US NSA did not bring up the issue of bases while the Pakistani NSA reiterated that bases were off the table as far as Islamabad was concerned.
In essence then, Pakistan is saying that it wants all issues linked to US withdrawal from Afghanistan to be part of a larger bilateral dialogue. However, it also has to balance its ties with Washington and Beijing at a time when the two superpowers are locked into a tense relationship. So far, China has made no demands on Pakistan to downgrade its ties with the US as long as Beijing remains Islamabad’s principal strategic partner. Washington too has communicated to Islamabad that it has no serious issues with whatever Pakistan wants to do with China in the economic and security spheres as long as it is not at Washington’s expense.
It is a tall order for Pakistan to maintain this balance. But it really does not have a choice, and effective diplomacy can reap plentiful dividends.
Published in Dawn, June 10th, 2021