The US is touching on a formalized agreement with Pakistan for the use of its airspace to conduct military and intelligence operations in Afghanistan, CNN reported.
CNN reported that Pakistan is willing to sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) in exchange for US’s assistance with Pakistan’s own counterterrorism efforts and help in managing the relationship with India.
The CNN added that the negotiations are ongoing and the terms of the agreement, which has not been finalized, could still change.
The briefing comes amidst the White House’s pursual to ensure counterterrorism operations against ISIS-K and other adversaries in Afghanistan now as there is no longer a US presence on the ground for the first time in two decades after the NATO withdrawal from the country.
What Pakistan wants and how much the US will offer?
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 Afghanistan. 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.
CNN’s sources said that an agreement was negotiated when the 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.
With no formal agreement currently in place, there is a high risk for the US as Pakistan can refuse entry to US military aircraft and drones en route to Afghanistan.
A Pentagon spokesman said that the Defense Department did not comment on closed briefings due to security classifications.
‘long shot’ options for over-the-horizon operations
The sources said that Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are emerging as favorable options to establish a US military presence for conducting the so-called over-the-horizon operations in Afghanistan. However, both countries would run into severe opposition from Russian President Vladimir Putin and some local politicians. “Both are long shots,” one source said, calling them “likely pipe dreams due to needing Putin’s blessing.”
Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman visited Uzbekistan earlier this month where she discussed “the way forward in Afghanistan” with President Shavkat Mirziyoyev.
Currently, the US conducts its over-the-horizon operations from bases in the Middle East, forcing drones to fly from distant bases, such as those in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, around Iran, and through Pakistani air space before reaching Afghanistan. The lengthy flight limits the time drones can loiter over Afghanistan gathering intelligence, and the Biden administration has been looking for closer, more effective options.
The commander of US Central Command, Gen. Frank McKenzie, told lawmakers last month that he still has “the ability to look into Afghanistan,” but it is “limited.” McKenzie also said he was not confident in the US’ ability to prevent ISIS and al Qaeda from using Afghanistan as a launchpad for terrorist activity in the future.
“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. That includes not only drones but also signals intelligence and cyber capabilities to monitor the situation in Afghanistan.
Biden’s promise of US troops’ engagements in Afghanistan
Earlier in July, President Joe Biden had said, weeks before the evacuation from Afghanistan and the fall of Kabul to the Taliban, that the US would maintain its ability to operate in the country, even if US troops were no longer on the ground.
On July 8, Biden said, “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.”
But lawmakers have questioned the White House’s ability to fulfill that promise. The Pentagon has repeatedly said the US can continue to fight terrorism in the region through over-the-horizon capabilities, but the Defense Department has not said where those capabilities will be headquartered in the region.
“They’re building the plane as they fly it,” one Senate aide told CNN of what Pentagon officials have shared about over-the-horizon plans.
The Ranking Member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) said that the US is “in a worse place to understand and track the terrorist threats coming from Afghanistan,” following a classified briefing on Afghanistan. The briefing included a discussion of over-the-horizon capabilities, according to a Senate Armed Services Committee aide.
In a statement, Inhofe said that the briefing “confirmed” that the US “is now less safe than before Biden’s disastrous decision to unconditionally and entirely withdraw from Afghanistan.”
Earlier in June, Prime Minister Imran reiterated Pakistan’s stance on the use of military bases and categorically stated that Islamabad will not allow US airbases.
The prime minister when asked by the American journalist for his comments on giving access to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to Pakistan military bases as was permitted during the government of Pervez Musharraf.
“Will you allow the American government to have the CIA here in Pakistan to conduct cross-border counter-terrorism missions against Al Qaeda, ISIS, and the Taliban?” Swan asked the premier.
“Absolutely not,” PM Imran Khan responded.