Google Earth images of Predators on the tarmac at the Shamsi Air Base in Baluchistan province, Afghanistan. Image from Wikipedia.
As the US-Pakistani military and intelligence relationship deteriorates over the use of Predators, the Raymond Davis affair, and Pakistan’s support of the Taliban, an unconfirmed report has emerged that the US airbase in Shamsi, Baluchistan, has been closed. CNN breaks the story:
U.S. military personnel have left a southern base in Pakistan said to be a key hub for American drone operations in the country’s northwestern tribal areas, a senior Pakistani intelligence official told CNN on Friday.
Drones are said to take off and get refueled for operations against Islamic militants from the Shamsi Air Base in Pakistan’s Balochistan province.
Another senior Pakistani intelligence official, who did not want to be identified discussing a sensitive issue, confirmed Americans had been using the base as a center of operations for launching drone strikes. He was not able to confirm if the Americans had left.
The first official said that American personnel were no longer operating out of the base, but he could not say whether they had left voluntarily or at the request of the Pakistani government.
The operation of the base — which the U.S. government has not publicly acknowledged — has always been presumed to have occurred with tacit Pakistani military consent.
It was not clear from the Pakistani officials when the presence there began or when it ended.
A U.S. military official who did not want to be identified told CNN: “There are no U.S. forces at Shamsi Air Base in Balochistan.” He did not respond at the time or in writing to queries as to whether U.S. personnel had been based there in the past.
The presence of US Predators at Shamsi has long been known. Images of the Predators on the runway at Shamsi were published back in 2009 [see image above]. The image, which was obtained from Google Earth, is no longer visible at Google Earth. The US also flies Predators from Jalalabad Airfield to carry out attacks against terrorist groups in Pakistan.
The C.I.A. has for several years operated Predator drones out of a remote base in Shamsi, Pakistan, but has secretly added a second site at an air base in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, several current and former government and company officials said. The existence of the Predator base in Jalalabad has not previously been reported. Officials said the C.I.A. now conducted most of its Predator missile and bomb strikes on targets in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region from the Jalalabad base, with drones landing or taking off almost hourly. The base in Pakistan is still in use. But officials said that the United States decided to open the Afghanistan operation in part because of the possibility that the Pakistani government, facing growing anti-American sentiment at home, might force the C.I.A. to close the one in Pakistan.
The war of words between the US and Pakistan has escalated. Pakistan is now flexing its muscles. The government has even approved shutting down ISAF’s supply lines into Afghanistan for two days beginning on April 23 to allow Imran Khan’s political party to stage a protest against the strikes.
The Predator program likely has peaked in its utility. Each strike now generates an enormous amount of negative publicity while further inflaming Pakistani actors. The political pressure from within Pakistan – from the military, national and provincial governments, the political parties, the general population, the media – is now too great for the US to conduct business as usual.
A major problem with the program from the very start has been the nod-and-wink nature of how the strikes are conducted. The US never required Pakistan to publicly support the strikes and make the case to the Pakistani public as to why they were needed. Instead, the US was content with Pakistani officials’ mildly protesting the strikes in public while the the very same officials quietly supported the program (just as long as the “bad Taliban” and not the “good Taliban” were killed, that is). But after the Davis affair, every strike has come with a firestorm of disapproval from Pakistani officials.
Now CNN is reporting that US officials said that US personnel are still at Shamsi:
However, a separate U.S. official, speaking in the United States, said drone operations had not stopped at the Shamsi base. “It’s news to us, and we would know.” The official added that “even if Pakistan did this, American anti-terrorism operations would continue.”
Clear as mud.
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