ISLAMABAD: The Foreign Office on Saturday conceded that Pakistan was discussing ‘counterterrorism cooperation’ with the United States but emphasised that no agreement had been concluded on the use of its airspace so far.

“Pakistan and the US have longstanding cooperation on regional security and counterterrorism and the two sides remain engaged in regular consultations,” FO spokesman Asim Iftikhar said in a statement on a CNN news report which claimed that Washing­ton is close to signing an agreement with Pakistan on use of its airspace for military operations in Afghanistan.

The report, CNN said, was based on information shared by the Biden administration with members of the Congress at a classified briefing on Friday.

The FO spokesperson, however, insisted “no such understanding was in place”.

The Biden administration, ever since the completion of withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan, has been heavily relying on an ‘over-the-horizon’ (OTH) capability for surveillance of threats and responding accordingly. It has been using satellites, U-2s, and drones for this purpose.

Islamabad in talks with Washington for counterterrorism cooperation

The entire operation, bes­i­des the capabilities of the systems employed by the US, dep­end on the access to the area of concern. Use of Pakistani airspace is, therefore, one of the preferred options, although Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are also being considered.

CNN said currently the operation is being run from bases in Qatar and the UAE from where the drones take off and fly through Pakistani airspace before reaching Afghan­is­tan for collecting intelligence. It said the lengthy flight limits the ability of the drones to gather intelligence that has already been limited due to practically non-existent on the ground human intelligence. The Biden administration has, therefore, been seeking bases closer to Afghanistan.

The US military has been carrying out this operation without a formal agreement with Pakistan. Therefore, there has always been the risk of Islamabad at some point refusing further flights.

It is in America’s deep interest that this facility continues. Commander of US Central Co­m­mand Gen Frank McKenzie had in his congressional testimony last month emphasized the importance of this air corridor. “Over the last 20 years we’ve been able to use what we call the air boulevard to go in over western Pakistan and that’s become something that’s vital to us, as well as certain landlines of communication. And we’ll be working with the Pakistanis in the days and weeks ahead to look at what that relationship is going to look like in the future,” Gen McKenzie had said.

US officials in their interactions with Pakistani counterparts, before the completion of withdrawal and specifically after the pull-out, have put counter-terrorism cooperation with Pakistan at the top of their agenda.

These meetings include visit of CIA Director William Burns to Pakistan in September, Secretary Blinken’s phone conversation and in-person meeting with Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi in New York, and more recently Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman’s trip to Islamabad.

Sherman had towards the end of her visit told a group of journalists at the US embassy that counter-terrorism dialogue with Pakistan would continue.

It is said support for OTH capability has now emerged as the centre piece of Pakistan-US counter-terrorism cooperation.

CNN reported Congress members were told that the US was nearing a formalized agreement with Pakistan.

Pakistan, the report while quoting an unnamed source said, also desires to sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) in exchange for assistance with its own counterterrorism efforts and help in managing the relationship with India.

Recognising Taliban regime

Meanwhile, Minister for Information Fawad Chaudhry told a press conference that Pakistan’s efforts for peace in Afghanistan would continue, as it was desirous of stability in the neighbouring country, adds APP.

“The situation in Afghanistan has a direct impact on Pakistan,” he said.

About recognising the Taliban regime, the minister said Pakistan would not recognise the Afghan government unilaterally and rather would take along other countries in the region on the issue. He also disclosed that talks were being held with the Taliban to persuade them to take other Afghan groups along for durable peace and stability.

About the issue of price hike and inflation, he said that besides other factors, Pakistani rupee depreciated due to smuggling of dollars to Afghanistan.

Published in Dawn, October 24th, 2021

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