Afghan Journal

Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics

Pakistan’s Shamsi base : a mystery wrapped in a riddle

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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 :

Behind volatile U.S.-Pakistan ties : the Afghan endgame ?

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Pakistan’s anger over U.S. drone strikes in its northwest region is unabated and this weekend protesters sat on a highway blocking convoys carrying supplies for NATO troops in Afghanistan.

Disrupting supplies, including fuel trucks, can severely impair the huge war effort in Afghanistan and its the sort of escalatory action that will likely draw a swift response from the United States, one way or the other.

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