ISLAMABAD: Pakistan's foreign office said on Saturday it had no "understanding" with the United States government regarding the use of its airspace for US military operations in Afghanistan.
The FO's statement came after a report published by CNN saying the administration of President Joe Biden had told lawmakers the US was close to a formal agreement with Pakistan to use its airspace to conduct military and intelligence operations in Afghanistan. The CNN report quoted three sources familiar with the details of a classified briefing with members of Congress that took place on Friday morning.
The briefing comes as the White House is trying to ensure it can carry out counterterrorism operations against Daesh militants and other adversaries now that there is no longer a US presence on the ground in Afghanistan for the first time in two decades after the NATO withdrawal in August.
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has repeatedly said he would not allow the US to use its airspace to access Afghanistan.
"In response to media queries regarding latest news report alluding to formalization of an agreement for the use of Pakistan’s airspace by the United States to conduct military and intelligence operations in Afghanistan, the [foreign office] Spokesperson stated that no such understanding was in place," the foreign office said.
"Pakistan and the U.S. have longstanding cooperation on regional security and counter-terrorism and the two sides remain engaged in regular consultations."
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.
The CNN report said Pakistan had expressed a desire to sign a Memorandum of Understanding in exchange for assistance with its own counterterrorism efforts and help in managing the relationship with India. Sources told CNN negotiations were ongoing "and the terms of the agreement, which has not been finalized, could still change.”
One source told CNN an agreement was discussed when US officials visited Pakistan, but it was not yet clear what Pakistan wanted or how much the US would be willing to give in return.
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.
A Pentagon spokesman said the Defense Department did not comment on closed briefings due to security classifications.
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.
President Joe Biden said in July, 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.
"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," he said on July 8.