Shamsi airbase: From hunting falcons to taking down terrorists

Shamsi airbase

Shamsi airbase

Shamsi airbase in Pakistan’s troubled Balochistan province, which is now in the eye of a storm after Islamabad asked the United States to vacate it, had for long been a landing spot for private luxury aircraft of rulers from Gulf sheikdoms who used to arrive in Pakistan for indulging in falconry trips, hunting and other activities.
In fact, the air base was leased out the United Arab Emirates in 1992, who in turn handed it over to the US for carrying out Predator drone strikes against Al Qaida and Talibani terrorists across Pakistan after 9/11.
The CIA began using this air base when General Pervez Musharraf was the president of Pakistan. The drone strikes against the militants have been deadly accurate in most of the cases, but there have been reports of collateral damage – read civilians — being victims in some cases.
The right-wing political parties supporting the Taliban have been time and again demanding that the US be prevented from using the air base since the terrorists have been feeling the heat after very important losses among their leadership.
Pakistan’s military leadership, too, have been uncomfortable with the American use of the Shamsi since many of their “strategic assets” have been lost to the drones. However, generous aid and not-so-subtle arm-twisting by the Americans have made them keep quiet till the Salala incident of November 26, 2011 when Nato aircraft hit Pakistani bunkers on the border with Afghanistan, killing 24 troops.
The strike itself has been shrouded in mystery, and Islamabad has accused the US of targeting Pakistani troops “without provocation”. But reports indicate that the area was a hotbed of Taliban activity, though Pakistan has been clearing that there were no militants in that area.
However, Nato sources indicated that their strike helicopters were called in after Afghan troops called for help after reportedly coming under fire from the border posts on the Pakistani side.
Pakistani border posts have been notorious to give covering fire to terrorists attempting to enter another country – and India has had enough examples of that. Even Pakistani analysts have been asking their government to come clean on that.
Nobody will attack somebody without a reason. Even though Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Gilani had said that the attack was “unprovoked”, there are no takers for his statement, even within Pakistan.
One analyst went so far as to state that it is hard to believe that Nato forces would gratuitously attack military posts inside Pakistan territory.
One notable irony is that only a day earlier before the Nato airstrike, Pakistan’s Army chief Gen Ashfaq Kayani was holding talks with the US commander in Kabul, John Allen on border cooperation.
But the loss of Shamsi airbase – or the cutting off the logistical supplies routes through Pakistan – will not have a major effect on US or Nato in Afghanistan. There is another air base right within Pakistan from where the US is operating drone and surveillance flights. Besides, the US has taken care to open other routes for bringing in logistical supplies into Afghanistan, notable from the Central Asian route.
Shahbaz airbase located at Jalalabad in Sindh province is also being used by the Americans, though Islamabad has denied this vehemently and said that it is fully under the control of the Pakistani Air Force.
This is the third time Pakistan has demanded the US to vacate the base. Similar demands were made after CIA operative Raymond Davis killed two Pakistanis in Lahore and in the other was in the aftermath of the US raid that killed Al Qaida chief Osama bin Laden.
But given its strategic location, the US would not like to lose Shamsi altogether. It asked the UAE to mediate with Pakistan. Emirati Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed al Nahyan, who reached in Islamabad on Monday night, made the request in a meeting with the president and asked that Pakistan allow the US to use the base until investigation into the incident is complete.
But news reports claimed that President Asif Ali Zardari, who Sheikh Abdullah met, turned down the request flatly. However, Pakistan cannot afford to antagonize the UAE or Saudi or other Gulf Sheikhs who pump in petrodollars into that country and it remains to be seen what happens in the coming days.

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