Pakistan has given US warplanes permission to use the country’s airspace to carry out operations in Afghanistan, The South China Morning Post reported on Tuesday, citing Pakistani journalists.
Since the access was reinstated, the report said the US had used Pakistani airspace at least once in early May to bomb Taliban targets in Afghanistan’s southern Helmand province. US warplanes were allowed to fly over Pakistan after the US requested access to Shamsi Airfield in Pakistan, which the US operated out of from 2001 to 2011.
While Pakistan has publicly denied that it will host a US military base, the fact that US warplanes are again using Pakistan’s air space is fueling speculation that a secret agreement has been made. It’s no secret that the Pentagon has been hoping to reposition forces that are leaving Afghanistan into neighboring countries, and the US reportedly also requested to establish bases in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, but those requests were unsuccessful.
In Pakistan, attention was drawn to the fact that US warplanes were granted access to the country’s air space after comments from David Helvey, the US assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific affairs. Helvey told the Senate Armed Services Committee on May 21st that Pakistan has helped the US by granting Washington “overflight and access to be able to support our military presence in Afghanistan.”
Responding to domestic criticism of the news, Pakistan’s foreign ministry denied it. Foreign ministry spokesman Zahid Hafeez Chaudhri said that Pakistan has allowed US overflights since 2001 and that no new agreement has been made. But Helvey’s comments indicated that some sort of new agreement had been reached. And before the US started pulling assets out of Afghanistan at the end of April, it would have no reason to launch airstrikes from Pakistani air space. The Post report speculated that the US warplanes that flew through Pakistan to bomb Afghanistan could have come from a US aircraft carrier in the Arabian Sea.
The news caused the Taliban to specifically warn Pakistan against hosting US troops that are leaving Afghanistan or allowing the US to use its airspace. If the US continues carrying out airstrikes in Afghanistan after it pulls troops out, the Taliban would see this as a clear violation of the Doha agreement, and would be less likely to continue peace talks with the US-backed Afghan government.