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The Boulevard: US launches its first drone attack on Afghanistan

After the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the “Absolutely Not” remark by PM Imran Khan, did the US air corridor, linking Qatar with Kabul, continue to operate through the Pakistani airspace? If yes, it was presumably used for reconnaissance missions only. The latest drone strike points to the possibility that the corridor is again fully activated.

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U.S. Airstrike on a Weapons Depot Kills 30 Taliban Militants in Helmand Province. Pakistani air corridor into Afghanistan, which the US pilots called “The Boulevard”, was perhaps never closed.  In the past, the corridor was essential for ferrying troops, ammunition, and weapons for the US forces waging a war against Al Qaeda and the Taliban since 2001. US intelligence flights and combat missions used it when taking off from the US bases in the Persian Gulf or aircraft carriers in the Indian Ocean. Was it still operational after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan?

In 2001, The US grudgingly accepted that Pakistan held an ace in a poker match with America. Pakistan’s land and air routes, if denied to the US and its coalition partners, could make the US invasion of Afghanistan extremely difficult, if not impossible. True, alternate land and air routes- the so-called Northern Distribution Network – were available through Central Asia.

Read more: Indian port refuses to handle cargo from Pakistan, Afghanistan & Iran

These routes were longer and costlier than those passing through Pakistan

The significance of the Pakistani land and air routes was highlighted when, after the Salala incident in November 2011 in which the Coalition forces killed 24 Pakistan Army soldiers, Pakistan closed both its land and air routes to the coalition forces for eight months. The land routes and air corridor were reopened in July 2012. During this period the Coalition forces were forced to use the Northern Distribution Network.

Since closing Pakistan’s airspace would hinder America’s ability to invade Afghanistan in the wake of the 9/11 attacks by Al Qaeda and Taliban- Al Qaeda’s Afghan hosts, the Bush administration threatened to bomb Pakistan “back to the stone age” if the country did not cooperate with America’s war on Afghanistan. Richard Olson, a former ambassador, said the US might regard such action as a “casus belli,” or grounds for war. Other former US officials echoed that assessment. The United States Armed Forces completed their withdrawal from Afghanistan on 30 August 2021, marking the end of the 20-year long war in Afghanistan.

Read more: How can the US ensure peace and stability in Afghanistan?

CNN: 23 October 2021

“The Biden administration has told lawmakers that the US is nearing a formalized agreement with Pakistan for use of its airspace to conduct military and intelligence operations in Afghanistan, according to the sources. Pakistan has expressed a desire to sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) in exchange for assistance with its counterterrorism efforts and help in managing the relationship with India, one of the sources said. ”

“But the negotiations are ongoing, and the terms of the agreement, which has not been finalized, could still change. The briefing comes as the White House is still trying to ensure that it can carry out counterterrorism operations against ISIS-K and other adversaries in Afghanistan now that there is no longer a US presence on the ground for the first time in two decades after the NATO withdrawal from the country. Biden promised ISIS-K will ‘pay’. Having no US troops in Afghanistan makes that harder”.

“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 third source said that an agreement was discussed when 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, the US runs the risk of Pakistan refusing entry to US military aircraft and drones en route to Afghanistan.”

Read more: Afghanistan highlights link between religious soft power and Gulf states security

 Anadolu Agency

“Pakistan on Saturday denied it has struck a deal to allow the US to use its airspace for military and intelligence operations in neighboring Afghanistan. The rebuttal came hours after a CNN report claimed that the two countries are “nearing a formalized agreement” to give Washington access to Pakistan’s airspace for operations in Afghanistan.”

Government of Pakistan

“No such understanding is in place,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Asim Iftikhar said in a statement. “Pakistan and the US have longstanding cooperation on regional security and counterterrorism and the two sides remain engaged in regular consultations.”

Shamsi airbase was leased by Pakistan to the UAE for game hunting purposes. During the US invasion of Afghanistan, the lease was transferred to the US for use as a base for joint CIA and USAF surveillance and drone operations against militants in Pakistan’s tribal areas. In the aftermath of the Salala incident, when Pakistan closed its air and land routes to the Coalition forces, the Pakistan government also ordered the US to vacate the Shamsi airbase.

Read more: US withdrawal and Taliban advances in Afghanistan

After the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the “Absolutely Not” remark by PM Imran Khan, did the US air corridor, linking Qatar with Kabul, continue to operate through the Pakistani airspace? If yes, it was presumably used for reconnaissance missions only. The latest drone strike points to the possibility that the corridor is again fully activated. As for again granting military bases like Shamsi to the US, it cannot be ruled out as the Imran Khan era comes to the end.

 

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Saleem Akhtar Malik is a Pakistan Army veteran who writes on national and international affairs, defense, military history, and military technology. He Tweets at @saleemakhtar53. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.