What can one say about the so-called Pakistani ‘communication’ to the US that it should leave the Shamsi airbase in Balochistan, except that there is confusion and much contradiction among the administrative domains in Pakistan? First, Defence Minister Ahmad Mukhtar told a group of journalists in Islamabad that Pakistan had asked the US to remove its troops from the base. This is what he said exactly: “When US forces will not operate from there, no drone attacks will be carried out. Islamabad has been pressuring the US to vacate the base even before the May 2 raid in which US Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden”. “After the raid”, he said, “we told them again”.
What he said afterwards created semantic if not factual confusion: “Pakistan has already stopped US drone operations there from the base”. If the drones don’t fly from the base, why ask the Americans to leave, unless something more than the drones was involved? Mukhtar proceeded to make it clearer: “It is time to review our anti-terror cooperation with the US”. The message was that Pakistan had reached a point of decisive action against US presence in Pakistan, earlier presaged by the removal of American trainers. The defence minister’s conversation communicated the intent of the Pakistan Army to curtail the country’s policy of cooperation with the US as per the angry joint resolution of parliament.
Then came the first damp squib. When asked whether US troops were vacating the Shamsi base, an official Washington spokesman said there was no such plan in the offing and that the US government had received no such request from Pakistan. This was flashed around the world as ‘American refusal to vacate the base’. When the mystery deepened over what exactly had happened, the Federal Minister for Information and Broadcasting Dr Firdous Ashiq Awan said the news about Pakistan asking the Americans to leave was a concoction of the media. She said she was a member of the defence committee and nothing of this sort was discussed during its meeting.
Mr Mukhtar is not famous for accurate communication of the government view. His last gaffe was after a high-powered government delegation returned from China. He announced that China had agreed to take over and run the Gwadar port, only to have the Chinese deny making any such commitment. It should be remembered that Mr Mukhtar is on record defending drone attacks at a time when they were becoming unpopular in Pakistan. His conversion to the anti-drone league now seems to have taken him a few paces ahead of the Pakistan Army which, according to Dr Awan, has not discussed Shamsi base.
Who is Mr Mukhtar listening to? As defence minister, he surely has more access to the way the army thinks than any other member of the cabinet. If he says something on a subject pertaining to American military presence in Pakistan, it is taken with more confidence than anything coming from the mouth of any other member of the cabinet. We realise that Awan was given the task of contradicting Mr Mukhtar because the blame had to be placed on the media, not him. But the truth is that it is the defence minister who has been ‘corrected’, and he is an important member of the cabinet, judging from the fact that he has been spared the PPP government’s telltale cabinet reshuffles explaining the pecking order of political power is Islamabad.
Shamsi base houses one of several airstrips developed by princes from the Gulf so that their planes could land in areas close to where they come in to hunt local animals such as houbaras. There are such bases in Rahimyar Khan and in Balochistan and it is quite clear that they can be used by our civil aviation authority for local travellers as well as by the army. The flying of drones from Shamsi base is needlessly made mysterious since WikiLeaks disclosures in recent months have made it clear that Pakistani rulers were not particularly perturbed by it till the joint session of the parliament got riled by them earlier this year. What is, however, disturbing is that there are binary views manifested inside our civilian-military establishment.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 3rd, 2011.
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