Pakistan denies airspace accord with US

Foreign Office rubbishes American media report on two countries nearing ‘understanding’


Kamran Yousaf October 23, 2021

ISLAMABAD:

Pakistan on Saturday denied that it had reached any formal agreement with the United States for the use of its airspace to conduct “military and intelligence operations” in Afghanistan.

The statement came after the CNN, in its report, cited three "sources familiar with the details of a classified briefing" to the US Congress, and said that the Biden administration had informed US lawmakers that the country was close to striking a formal deal with Pakistan on the use of its airspace to conduct operations in Afghanistan.

The report claimed that Pakistan had "expressed a desire" to sign a memorandum of understanding in return for help in its own counterterrorism operations and assistance with managing the relationship with India.

It further maintained that according to a source, negotiations were still under way and the details of the agreement, which have not yet been hammered out, were still subject to change.

The briefing comes as the White House is still trying to ensure that it can carry out counterterrorism operations against ISIS-K and other adversaries in Afghanistan now that there is no longer a US presence on the ground for the first time in two decades after the NATO withdrawal from the country.

The US military currently uses Pakistan's airspace to reach Afghanistan as part of ongoing intelligence-gathering efforts, but there is no formal agreement in place to ensure continued access to a critical piece of airspace necessary for the US to reach the landlocked country.

The air corridor through Pakistan to Afghanistan may become even more critical if and when the US resumes flights into Kabul to fly out American citizens and others who remain in the country following a hasty withdrawal of the Western forces after two decades of inconclusive war. The third source said that an agreement was discussed when US officials visited Pakistan, but it's not yet clear what Pakistan wants or how much the US would be willing to give in return.

Read: Opposition in NA asks govt to explain US claims of airspace use

With no formal agreement currently in place, the US runs the risk of Pakistan refusing entry to US military aircraft and drones en route to Afghanistan.

The story immediately triggered a debate on the social media in Pakistan where people started questioning what happened to the statement given by Prime Minister Imran Khan that the country would not provide any bases to the US for counter terrorism operations in Afghanistan.

The Foreign Office was quick to issue a clarification on the CNN report.

"No such understanding was in place," the FO spokesperson said in response to queries about whether or not the country's airspace would be used to conduct military and intelligence operations in the neighbouring country.

The spokesperson, however, stressed that Pakistan and the US had "longstanding cooperation" on issues of regional security and counter-terrorism and "the two sides remain engaged in regular consultations".

In an interview with Axios on HBO in June, Prime Minister Imran Khan had categorically said that Pakistan would “absolutely not” allow any bases and use of its territory to the US for any sort of action inside Afghanistan — his clear-cut response surprising the interviewer.

"Pakistan suffered 70,000 casualties, more than any other country by joining the American war. We cannot afford any more military actions from our territory. We will be partners in peace, not in conflict," the prime minister had said.

Asked whether Pakistan would allow the US Air Force to use its airspace for airstrikes against the Taliban, the premier had reiterated that Pakistan "would not be a part of any conflict".

When pushed for an answer, he had replied that it had not been discussed. "Why would the Americans bomb Afghanistan when it hasn't worked for 20 years?"

There was a framework agreement of 2001 between Pakistan and the US. The US and Nato forces used both the airspace and land routs under the Ground Lines of Communications (GLOCS) and Air lines of communications (ALoCS) for their military campaign in Afghanistan.

But there is no clarity if the agreement still exists given the fact that the US and other foreign forces now left Afghanistan.

Former foreign secretary Aizaz Ahmed Chaudhry, who also served as Pakistan’s Ambassador to the US, said although the US military campaign was over in Afghanistan the two countries still needed to cooperate with each other on counter terrorism.

Also read: WHAT’S NEXT FOR PAKISTAN AND THE US?

He said terrorism was still a common challenge for both the US and Pakistan and there had to be some kind of arrangement between the two countries. However, he made it clear that Pakistan would not provide bases or blanket permission that the US had been given in the past.

Pakistan is keen to continue counter terrorism cooperation with the US but it does not want to give any impression that the arrangement would be aimed at Afghanistan or the Taliban government.

Nevertheless, it appears that the two sides have been talking to each other over the subject and some forward movement has been made. The Biden administration’s decision to appoint an Ambassador in Pakistan after a gap of over three years suggested the two countries were trying to reset their ties.

Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi in May had also ruled out the possibility of providing military bases to the US for counter-terrorism operations in Afghanistan.

He had rejected as unfounded the reports to this effect and made it clear that the government would neither provide military bases to the US, nor would it allow drone attacks inside Pakistan.

The US has been concerned about the rise of the militant Islamic State (IS) group in Afghanistan in the wake of its withdrawal from the country. The IS-Khorasan chapter claimed responsibility for an attack on Kabul's airport in August that had killed scores.

The group has also claimed responsibility for a spate of attacks in Afghanistan in the past month against the country's Shia community.

A report by the Bloomberg news agency had noted that after fighting each other for 20 years, the US and Taliban “are suddenly finding their interests aligned against a common enemy”.

The report included a quote by US President Joe Biden, saying that it’s “in the interest of the Taliban that in fact ISIS-K does not metastasise beyond what it is”.

Also read: ‘Absolutely not’: PM says US bases won’t be allowed

The report noted that the arrangement was “awkward for both the US and the Taliban,” although each wants to prevent Afghanistan from turning into a key staging ground for IS.

The Taliban have ruled out cooperation with the US to contain extremist groups in Afghanistan, staking out an uncompromising position on a key issue.

Taliban’s political spokesperson Suhail Shaheen said there would be no cooperation with Washington on containing the increasingly active IS in Afghanistan.

“We are able to tackle Daesh [Arabic acronym for IS] independently,” Shaheen said, when asked whether or not the Taliban would work with the US to contain an IS affiliate.

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