JNN 02 July 2011 ISLAMABAD – Facing domestic political pressure, Pakistan’s government escalated the war of words with the United States, with its defense minister repeating calls for the U.S. to stop using a remote air base for drone strikes and to vacate the base.
Relations between the two countries have been on a downward slide for months, but deteriorated after the May 2 raid by U.S. SEALs in Abbottabad that allegedly killed Osama bin Laden.
Bin Laden’s presence in a military town less than a kilometer from Pakistan’s version of West Point reinforced suspicion in the United States that elements of Pakistan’s security establishment may have helped hide him.
Wednesday’s remarks by Defense Minister Ahmed Mukhtar that the U.S. had been asked to vacate Shamsi Air Base, in the remote southwest part of the country, was the latest salvo as the two countries tussle over their interests in an Afghanistan settlement and the Pakistani government seeks to publicly distance itself from Washington.
“We have been talking to them (on the issue) for some time, but after May 2, we told them again,” Mukhtar told Reuters on Thursday. “When they (U.S. forces) will not operate from there (Shamsi base), no drone attacks will be carried out.”
Earlier the Financial Times quoted him as saying that Pakistan had already stopped U.S. drone flights from the air base.
Pakistan has long opposed the Central Intelligence Agency’s unacknowledged drone campaign against militants based in Pakistan’s tribal badlands on the Afghan border as a violation of its sovereignty.
But in private the government and the military have offered a degree of support for the strikes, including giving intelligence to help target members of al Qaeda and the Taliban.
Despite Mukhtar’s statements, it’s unclear what the situation at Shamsi is, with the United States, the Pakistani military and local officials giving conflicting statements on whether drones and U.S. personnel were still based there.
A U.S. military official said no American military personnel had ever been stationed at the base, but the drone program in Pakistan is run by the CIA, and the official declined to comment on that.
Pakistani military officials confirmed that the United States had been asked to vacate the base, but wouldn’t comment on when the request had been made or whether the Americans had complied.
“We have told them to leave, vacate our base. We cannot provide security to their people,” a senior air force official, who declined to be identified, told Reuters.
Pakistani authorities have reportedly stopped all the US operations at Shamsi Air Base in the restive southwestern province of Balochistan.
“Yes I can confirm Shamsi air base is no more under the use of American and 150 US personnel stationed at the base have left,” NBC quoted senior Pakistani military intelligence officials as saying.
The move comes just hours after two US drones fired missiles into the North Waziristan tribal region, killing 25 people including women and children.
The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has been using the air base to station its unmanned predator drones.
The drones have been used to attack targets inside Pakistan’s tribal areas killing several hundred innocent civilians.
The base was also extensively used in 2001 when the US started the invasion of Afghanistan.
Relations between Islamabad and Washington have been tense amid repeated breach of Pakistani sovereignty by US forces.
US-Pakistani ties have also been strained over the case of Raymond Davis — a CIA contractor who shot dead two Pakistanis in the eastern city of Lahore earlier this year.
The base is located about 50 kilometers from the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. The strategic location of the base allows US forces to launch drone attacks within minutes of an order.
An investigation by The Times revealed in 2010 that the CIA has been secretly using Shamsi to launch strikes on targets on the Pakistani side of the border with Afghanistan.
The Pakistani military had reportedly allowed the US to use Shamsi, Jacobabad, and two other bases — Pasni and Dalbadin — in its 2001 invasion of Afghanistan.
The then military government, led by Pervez Musharraf contended that the Americans had left the bases in 2006.
US drone attacks in Pakistan and Afghanistan have caused hundreds of civilian casualties and have fuelled anti-American sentiments.
Islamabad has repeatedly called on the US to halt drone attacks on Pakistani tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.
Public anger is running high against the strikes and there are no signs that the US will stop the attacks despite Pakistan’s protest.
Pakistan has recently demanded that the United States steeply reduce the number of CIA operatives and halt drone attacks on its soil.
Meanwhile, reports say US President Barack Obama has rejected Islamabad’s call for more transparency regarding CIA operations in the country.