The control of Shamsi air base in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province has become a bone of contention in US-Pakistan relations. A day after Pakistan’s Defence MInister Chaudhry Ahmad Mukhtar confirmed that the US has been asked to stop using the Shamsi base for drone attacks and to vacate the base — he didn’t say when exactly the demand was made or what the US response has been — an unnamed US official maintains, “That base is neither vacated nor being vacated.” The US official who is ‘familiar with the matter’ told Reuters that the American military personnel haven’t left the base and have no plans to do so.
How the US’ open affront plays out in Pakistani opinion will bear watch. The move to vacate the Americans from Shamsi is a popular decision within Pakistan and the US is taunting the Pakistani opinion. Drone attacks have become an important template of the US’ ‘counterterrorism’ strategy worldwide, which was announced by US president Barack Obama on June 28 — and operating out of Shamsi makes sense. The base is also close to the Iranian border. The Pakistani demand on the US to vacate Shamsi predates the Abbottabad operation and OBL’s killing and it is traceable to the aftermath of the Raymond Davis affair in March when Pakistan got to know about the ramifications of the US intelligence penetration of the insurgent groups and Pakistani agencies. Interestingly, the Blackwater group’s personnel were also located in Shamsi.
How can the US defy Pakistan’s sovereignty over Shamsi? The answer lies in the fact that Pakistan doesn’t itself probably have control of Shamsi. During the Pakistan national assembly debate on May 13 on the Abbottabad operation, which was held in camera, Pak air chief Rao Qamar Suleman apparently disclosed that Shamsi has been under the control of the United Arab Emirates. That is entirely conceivable beause the air strip in Shamsi was originally made exclusively for the use of the Arab sheikhs for falconry trips. It is possible that the US entered into a back to back deal with the UAE government and doesn’t consider answerable to Pakistan.
The US’ access to Shamsi came about in the early years of the Afghan war in 2001 under Pervez Musharraf and it has become a controversy today when the US-Pak ties began deteriorating. The US’ use of Shamsi was kept a ‘top secret’ until February 2009 when London Times printed some Google Earth picture dated 2006 of 3 drone aircraft parked on a parking ramp in the air base. On a broader perspective, Shamsi becomes the symbol of the stupidity and ‘rentier’ mentality of the Pakistani rulers in surrendering their country’s sovereignty to curry favour with the US.