Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics
Pakistan’s Shamsi base : a mystery wrapped in a riddle
Pakistan Defence Minister Mukhtar Ahmad’s comments this week that the government had ended U.S. drone flights out of Shamsi air base deep in southwest Baluchistan province has injected new controversy in their troubled relationship. U.S. officials appeared to scoff at Mukhtar’s remarks, saying they had no plans to vacate the base from where they have in the past launched unmanned Predator aircraft targeting militant havens in the northwest region.
Washington’s dismissal of the Pakistan government’s stand is quite extraordinary. Can a country, even if it is the world’s strongest power, continue to use an air base despite the refusal of the host country ? The United States is effectively encamped in Pakistan using its air strip to run a not-so-secret assassination campaign against militant leaders including Pakistanis while Islamabad fumes.
One possible reason Washington can get away with it is that the base may not belong to Pakistan. Ahmed said that Shamsi had been leased to the United Arab Emirates in 1992 and they had handed over operational control to the United States when it launched the war against terrorism in Afghanistan and eventually Pakistan. Pakistan’s air force made the same disclosure during an in-camera hearing for parliament following the secret raid to kill Osama bin Laden in May, the Pakistani press reported at the time and again this week as controversy swirled over Mukhtar’s comment.
It raises troubling issues of sovereignty for Pakistanis as an editorial in The Daily Times noted :
The questions are many. What is the agreement regarding Shamsi air base? If the Pakistanis are in control of it, what need is there to `ask` the Americans to leave? If the Americans control it, under what laws and agreement have they been permitted to and who on the Pakistani side has signed off on it?
It is not the first time the issue of control of Shamsi has erupted in public. A 2005 U.S. diplomatic cable published by Dawn records the UAE government’s displeasure at leak of reports about its military cooperation with the United States inside Pakistan. The cable from the U.S. embassy in Abu Dhabi says that the UAE government had complained about General Tommy Franks, former Commander of U.S. Central Command, writing in his book, “”American Soldier”” that U.S. forces had made use of Sheikh Zayed’s private airstrip in Baluchistan, Pakistan. The cable said :
UAEG desires to keep details of the UAE cooperation with the U.S. military in Afghanistan and Pakistan confidential, because the Government is concerned that public acknowledgement of this assistance could pose risks to the UAE security within the UAE or to UAE officials in Pakistan.
It said members of the UAE ruling family frequently visited Pakistan for hunting expeditions and it was worried these revelations would endanger their safety. The big question is what compulsions would drive a country such as Pakistan to hand over airstrips. And is it just Shamsi, or there are more national assets rented out ?