Who is deceiving whom? Whom should the Pakistanis believe? Conflicting statements by the Pakistani leadership and US officials have added to the confusion and deepened the mystery surrounding the Shamsi airbase. While Defence Minister Ahmed Mukhtar announced that Washington had been asked to vacate the base, the US officials were quick to respond that “the base is neither vacated nor being vacated”, and that no formal request was received from Islamabad to evacuate it.
Meanwhile, the Defence Minister was surely embarrassed when Information Minister Firdous Ashiq Awan asserted that the government was unaware of any issue relating to the base, saying: “No such matter ever came under consideration in the Defence Committee of the Cabinet (DCC), of which I am also a member.”
The Washington Post recently reported that the US had halted drone strikes from “Shamsi three months ago after the Raymond Davis dispute”, and all the attacks since then were launched from the bases in Afghanistan. While The Post also disclosed that the US personnel and Predator drones still remain at Shamsi, the State Department stated that “it was not aware if the United States still had military personnel at Shamsi airbase.”
So, a few questions have come up. Has the US military really left Shamsi? If the CIA is conducting drone strikes from Afghanistan, then why is the US/CIA and their drones still present at Shamsi? Is it being used by the American intelligence agency for drone reconnaissance missions?
Reportedly, the Shamsi airstrip was originally built for Arab Sheikhs, who flew into Pakistan for falcon hunting in the early nineties. However, now it has been occupied by the CIA since 2004 and it was disclosed when Google Earth released images showing three Predator drones parked on the runway. The base’s infrastructure has been expanded with new constructions, like aircraft hangars, coming up in last few years.
If there is one truth about Shamsi, it is Pakistan Air Force Chief’s startling revelation in the May 13 in-camera joint parliamentary session that the air base was under the UAE government’s authority and not under PAF’s control. If Shamsi is a ‘no go’ area for the PAF and out of Pakistan’s jurisdiction, then the question is: Who owns the Shamsi airbase - UAE or Pakistan?
Surely, the nation has the right to know the truth about the terms and conditions of any contract/lease or permanent transfer agreement signed between the Pakistan and UAE governments to determine the ownership status of the airbase. Aspects of the agreement related to the duration of lease, security responsibility and degree of Islamabad’s control are important from Pakistan’s point of view. Furthermore, can the UAE sublet this base to a foreign power?
If Shamsi was constructed by the UAE government and remains their property, then under which Article of the Constitution or law has such an agreement or transaction taken place? Which Pakistani government or Parliament approved the Shamsi deal with the UAE? Surely, how all this happened in a ‘sovereign’ state is beyond comprehension.
USA’s occupation of the Shamsi airbase reminds us of the infamous American facility established in Badaber, known as Peshawar Air Station, 16 kilometres from Peshawar, which was a cover for a major communications intercept operation run by the United States National Security Agency. Because of its proximity to Soviet Central Asia (a section of Central Asia formerly controlled by the Soviet Union), the Badaber base enabled the US to monitor its ballistic missiles and nuclear test sites, and key infrastructure and communications.
The U-2 high altitude “spy-in-the-sky” plane was allowed to operate from Peshawar airbase to gain vital photo intelligence in an era before satellite observation. Also, President Eisenhower, reportedly, authorised few U-2 flights from the Lahore airbase in 1957. These flights were suspended after a U-2 aircraft piloted by Gary Powers, which took off from the Peshawar base, was shot down by the Red Army on May 1, 1960.
The Peshawar Air Station was established under a 10-year agreement between Washington and Islamabad in July 1958. Known as Little USA, Badaber base’s infrastructure, including technical facilities, residential accommodation, and sports facilities, were constructed by the US government. Ultimately, America had to vacate the base in July 1970 after its failure to get the agreement renewed amidst increased anti-US public sentiments, especially after the post 1965 Indo-Pak war US arms embargo on Pakistan.
If the then military-led Government of Pakistan could get the Badaber spy base vacated by US in 1970, then why cannot the current democratic leadership show the political will and courage to formally ask it to leave the Shamsi airbase? With America drawing down its forces from Afghanistan, there remains no US justification for keeping the use of the airstrip?
But what covert strategic advantages does the US derive from Shamsi? This airfield provides a discreet launching pad - 200 miles southwest of Quetta - where the USA suspects the members of the Afghan Taliban shura or council are hiding. Shamsi lies about 100 miles south of the Afghan border overlooking Taliban infiltration routes into Afghanistan, and 100 miles east of the Iranian border enabling the US forces to conduct covert intelligence missions into Iran. And, most importantly, the base is not too far from Pakistan’s nuclear testing sites in the Chagai mountain ranges. A few hundred kilometres in the south lie the Balochistan coast, and off its shores remains stationed a US naval and amphibious landing force!
Like the drones, Shamsi may soon become a leading national issue that could fuel more anti-Americanism. So, what options does Pakistan have if the superpower refuses to vacate it? In this context, trilateral negotiations between key players (Pak-US-UAE) at the political and diplomatic level should take priority. Pakistan could withdraw any external security or logistics support provided to the base. In search of real truth, the Pakistani media should be granted access to the base to verify the ground realities.
Would the US be able to withstand the Pakistani public’s demand to vacate Shamsi? No. Like Badaber, it will have no choice, but to respect the demand of the Pakistani nation and its people. Shamsi has been a dark chapter of deceit and deception in our history. After USA’s exit, a memorial at this airbase be dedicated to those countless Pakistanis, who became bloody victims of indiscriminate drone attacks in a ‘needless’ and ‘senseless’ war under a complicit leadership.