Pakistan is pushing the US to abandon an airbase in Balochistan that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has reportedly been using for years to undertake its drone campaign inside the country’s tribal areas, the defence minister said.
Defence Minister Ahmed Mukhtar’s statement confirming that the US had been told to leave the Shamsi airbase is the latest indication of the simmering tensions between the key war-on-terror allies.
The minister told a group of journalists in Islamabad on Wednesday that it was time to review the anti-terror cooperation with the US.
“We have told them [US officials] to leave the airbase,” APP quoted Mukhtar as saying.
Pakistan first asked the CIA to vacate the airbase early this year when the two countries negotiated to redefine their cooperation after an American contactor shot at and killed two Pakistanis in Lahore.
Islamabad pressed its demand harder after last month’s overnight-raid by US Navy SEALs in Abbottabad that killed former al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden.
The move by the security establishment was part of its efforts to reduce US footprints on Pakistani soil.
It is still unclear whether at all, or when, the Americans would abandon the facility they have been using since former president Pervez Musharraf first allowed them to operate from it back in 2006.
Meanwhile, there were more signs of escalating tensions between Washington and Islamabad as the Pakistani military hit back at US generals accusing it of being lax on militants.
A statement by the military’s public relations wing rebuked a statement by top US generals in a testimony before the Senate’s arms service committee.
“We reject allegations leveled by senior US military officials as reported in a section of the press casting aspersions on the desire and capability of the Pakistan army to fight militancy,” said the statement by the Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR).
Lieutenant General John Allen, named the next commander in Afghanistan, suggested Pakistan was keeping its options open by allowing Haqqani fighters to operate within its borders.
“It’s a function, probably, of capacity. But it might also be a function of their hedging, whether they have determined that the US is going to remain in Afghanistan and whether our strategy will be successful or not,” Allen told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
But Pakistani military rejected the comments terming them “uncalled for”.
“Our concerns and constraints must be taken into consideration before making any statement questioning our commitment to fighting militancy,” the ISPR statement added.
The reaction by the Pakistani military appeared to be indicating that both countries were facing a severe trust deficit in terms of who should spearhead a so-called reconciliation process in Afghanistan.
Mukhtar also admitted that the level of trust deficit was the highest in 10 years, but suggested it could be reduced through constant engagement.
“This trust deficit could be reduced by sitting together and taking joint actions,” he told the media.
On Tuesday, US vice admiral William McRaven, who oversaw the Bin Laden raid, said the US military believes that Taliban supreme leader Mullah Omar is in Pakistan and had asked the Pakistani army to locate him.
Asked about Omar, Mukhtar said: “Even if he was in Pakistan, he would have left the country after the Abbottabad incident.”
Published in The Express Tribune, June 30th, 2011.