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US close to agreement with Pakistan to use airspace for Afghanistan military operations: Report

An MQ-Reaper drone remotely piloted aircraft flies over Creech Air Force Base, Nev., June 25, 2015. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Cory D. Payne)
October 25, 2021

President Joe Biden’s administration told lawmakers that the United States is close to a formal agreement with Pakistan that would allow the US to use its airspace to execute military and intelligence operations in Afghanistan, three sources familiar with the matter said, according to a CNN report on Friday.

One of the sources reportedly said that Pakistan has expressed interest in signing a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) if the United States helps with Pakistan’s own counterterrorism efforts, as well as its relationship with India.

Officials are in negotiations, one of the sources said, adding that because nothing has been finalized, details of the agreement could still change.

The White House is trying to determine how it can conduct counterterrorism operations against ISIS-K and other adversary groups in Afghanistan now that the United States no longer has a presence in the Middle Eastern nation for the first time in 20 years.  

As part of broader intelligence-gathering efforts, the United States military currently uses Pakistan’s airspace to reach Afghanistan; however, there is no formal agreement securing US military access to the region.

Another source said US officials discussed an agreement during a trip to Pakistan, but it is unclear precisely what Pakistan wants in return.

While US officials declined to comment on the reported negotiations, Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a statement that said “no such understanding was in place.”

“Pakistan and the U.S. have longstanding cooperation on regional security and counter-terrorism and the two sides remain engaged in regular consultations,” the statement continued.

One of the sources said officials are also considering Uzbekistan and Tajikistan from which to conduct operations into Afghanistan, but both nations would likely face opposition from Russian President Vladimir Putin, as well as local politicians.

“Both are long shots,” one source commented, saying they are “likely pipe dreams due to needing Putin’s blessing.”

Last month, Gen. Frank McKenzie, commander of US Central Command, told lawmakers that he has maintained “the ability to look into Afghanistan,” but it is “limited.” The top commander added that he was not confident that the United States would be able to prevent ISIS and al Qaeda from using Afghanistan as a base for future terrorist activity.   

“The US maintains ongoing ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) capabilities as needed to support the over-the-horizon and counter-terrorism mission requirements,” a defense official told CNN.

Earlier this year, prior to the disastrous withdrawal and evacuation from Afghanistan that left 13 American troops dead and possibly thousands stranded behind enemy lines, President Biden said the US would still have the ability to operate in Afghanistan despite having zero troops on the ground.

“We are developing a counterterrorism over-the-horizon capability that will allow us to keep our eyes firmly fixed on any direct threats to the United States in the region, and act quickly and decisively if needed,” Biden said in July.