While serving ministers battle out the status of US forces at Shamsi air base, The Washington Post reported on Saturday that the CIA suspended its long-standing use of the air base as a launch site for armed drones three months ago, according to US and Pakistani officials.
American personnel and Predator drones, meanwhile, remain at the facility in Balochistan, with security provided by the Pakistani military, the report revealed.
All US drone strikes in the past three months have been launched from Afghanistan, in the vicinity of Jalalabad, the report quoted officials as saying.
Asked to leave
Interestingly, the report corroborated Defence Minister Ahmed Mukhtar’s claim that Islamabad had been pressing the US to leave the base even before the May 2 incursion in Abbottabad.
After the raid, Mukhtar told reporters on Wednesday, “We told them again.”
The Washington Post, quoting a senior Pakistani defence official, reported that in the weeks after Pakistan’s release of the CIA contractor Raymond Davis, top Pakistani military and intelligence officials made “a formal, personal request … a demand … more than once” to their US counterparts to end the flights and leave Pakistan.
In response, the US official said that “there has been some thinning out at the base, and the drone missions suspended.” An American official said the CIA’s decision to suspend the launches was part of a US effort to “pay attention to the sensitivities” of the Pakistanis.
Information Minister Firdous Ashiq Awan on Friday, however, dismissed Mukhtar’s statement that the US had been asked to vacate the airbase in Balochistan.
“It’s just a statement for the media,” Awan told a media gathering in Lahore. “I am also a member of the defence committee and the matter was not discussed there.”
Meanwhile, American officials had also rebuffed Mukhtar’s statements saying there was no plan to evacuate the base.
“That base is neither vacated nor being vacated,” a US official familiar with the matter was reported as saying.
The Washington Post report also claimed that “the rupture in [US-Pakistan] intelligence cooperation has slowly begun to heal.”
Pakistan has reversed its freeze on visas for United States intelligence officials and allowed dozens of Central Intelligence Agency personnel to reenter the country, the report quoted officials from both countries as saying.
Who granted the permission?
The report appearing in the Washington-based newspaper also said that former Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf secretly authorised the CIA to operate drones from Shamsi, a small air facility in Balochistan.
The air strip, located about 600 miles southwest of Islamabad, apparently was constructed years ago by the ruling family of the United Arab Emirates as an arrival point for falconry and other hunting expeditions in Pakistan.
The present use of the airfield was revealed in a book published by retired Gen Tommy Franks, the former head of the US Central Command, The Washington Post added.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 3rd, 2011.