The curious case of the Shamsi airbase

Published: July 4, 2011
The writer was a Ford Scholar at the Programme in Arms Control, Disarmament and International Security at UIUC (1997) and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Foreign Policy Studies Programme

The writer was a Ford Scholar at the Programme in Arms Control, Disarmament and International Security at UIUC (1997) and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Foreign Policy Studies Programme

Shamsi airbase: A Reuters story calls it a mystery wrapped in a riddle. Is it?

There are three state actors involved in the issue — Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates and the United States. One can be sure that none is likely to tell the truth. But, as Bacon said, if something “be thought secret, it inviteth discovery; as the more close air sucketh in the more open”. So, let’s begin with what is known.

In his book In the Line of Fire, this is what former general-president Pervez Musharraf wrote in detailing the US demands after 9/11:

“How could we allow the US ‘blanket overflight and landing rights’ without jeopardising our strategic assets? I offered only a narrow flight corridor that was far from any sensitive areas. Neither could we give the US ‘use of Pakistan’s naval ports, air bases, and strategic locations on borders.’ We refused to give any naval ports or fighter aircraft bases. We allowed the US only two bases — Shamsi in Balochistan and Jacobabad in Sindh — and only for logistics and aircraft recovery. No attack could be launched from there. We gave no ‘blanket permission’ for anything.”

We gave permission? Fast forward to now. The prime minister and the defence minister say that we can’t throw out the US equipment and personnel because the Shamsi base does not belong to Pakistan, having been leased out to the UAE in 1992. According to this version, the operational control of the base was handed over to the US by the UAE, not Pakistan.

This is corroborated apparently by what the Pakistan Air Force representative told parliament in the in-camera session following the May 2 Abbottabad raid.

Then we have a 2005 US diplomatic cable which says the UAE government is displeased “at leak of reports about its military cooperation with the United States inside Pakistan” contained in American Soldier, a book by General Tommy Franks, former commander of US central command. Franks had written about the use by the US of Sheikh Zayed’s private airstrip in Balochistan.

The cable read: “UAE government desires to keep details of the UAE cooperation with the US military in Afghanistan and Pakistan confidential, because the government is concerned that public acknowledgement of this assistance could pose risks to the UAE security within the UAE or to UAE officials in Pakistan.”

Is Musharraf lying about having permitted the US the use of Shamsi and Jacobabad? Perhaps not. But let’s first raise a few more questions.

What is the nature of this lease? Is it a private international law agreement (PILA) or in the nature of a treaty? If it’s the former, which means an agreement between a government and a private party, then the government of the state to which the private party belongs can intervene and cancel the agreement. This happened in the F-16 case in which the government of Pakistan had entered into an agreement with the manufacturer of the aircraft. The US government, when it slapped sanctions on Pakistan, intervened in that agreement. Reko Diq in Balochistan is another case in point.

Even if the PILA is between the UAE government and the Balochistan government, the federal government can override it because Balochistan is a federating unit. We also don’t know whether the private party, if any, is on the Pakistani side or whether, in this case, the UAE’s royal family has entered as a private party into a lease agreement with Pakistan.

If, on the other hand, the lease is governed by a treaty, then it becomes a sovereign agreement and the nature of the debate changes. It would still be necessary to see whether such an agreement allows the UAE to sub-lease the use of the base to a third party. And if that be the case, whether a sub-lease would also require that the government of Pakistan agree to such arrangement. Nor do we know what constraints the third party will have to work with and who would monitor such compliance.

In the absence of any documents, one can only conjecture. But chances are that any sub-lease by the UAE would need the government of Pakistan’s permission. This is the only way we can square the contents of the US government diplomatic cable with the account given by Musharraf in his book.

This still leaves out the issue of whether the use of the base was confined to recovery of aircraft and logistics. We are now told the US could only mount surveillance flights but there is much evidence that the US also mounted attack flights from the base of MQ1-A Predators. Since when is the question.

The Predator drones had become weapons-capable before 9/11 happened. The first successful test was conducted in February 2001 at Nellis Air Force base. That the US had already begun planning taking out Osama bin Laden is proved by reports that in June 2001 a Hellfire AGM-114C missile was launched on a replica of bin Laden’s Afghanistan residence built at a Nevada test site. Flying from a base in Uzbekistan, it was in February 2002 that an MQ1-A was used to attack a convoy of SUVs inside Afghanistan.

It seems that this is where both the UAEG and the government of Pakistan have been dissembling. The base was handed over to the Americans and everyone was looking the other way over its use. One can’t be sure of when exactly the USG deployed the Predators at Shamsi but it is safe to assume that the base was primarily used for Predator flights. The story was first broken by Zahid Hussain in February 2009 for The Times of London.

It may be noted that when these birds were flying from Uzbekistan, even after the Predators had become weapons-capable, the USG could not operate armed flights until Uzbekistan permitted such flights. So, we can be sure that in this ménage à trois, all three parties were of age and consenting.

Except that now the situation has changed and the government of Pakistan wants an end to this arrangement. That is where the nature of the agreement with UAEG and its politics comes in. There is, of course, the overhang also of Pakistan-US relations, already at their lowest. It is, therefore, not just a matter of evicting the Americans but also dealing with the consequences of doing so vis-a-vis both the USG and the UAEG. Since no course of action is without its costs, it all depends on what it is that the actors consider their optimal and suboptimal choices and whether they are playing a nested game.

Finally, even if we consider Shamsi to be sovereign UAE territory which it could sub-lease to a third party, does a bird flying from Shamsi enter UAE airspace or Pakistan’s?

Published in The Express Tribune, July 5th, 2011.

Facebook Conversations

Reader Comments (36)

  • Jul 4, 2011 - 10:10PM

    Your final sentence is where the key is. Someone is looking the other way, or given permission to drones to fly from Shamsi over Pakistani airspace into Afghanistan. Now, that may be in the past, and perhaps all the fuss right now is alot of diplomatic noise. But we are at fault ourselves. we are too heavily invested in the UAE. Each and every political leader calls Dubai his second home. Each year we allow Arab Royals to run amok as they hunt an endangered species, and then we are more than happy to turn the other way, as they treat our fellow citizens pathetically as they go about earning a daily wage as migrant workers. The UAE is not going to jeopardize its relationship with the US on our behalf. All this clock and dagger is pointless. The military might as well own up that the actively have in the past supported drone strikes and move on. Otherwise we are going in circles. The US can easily operate the drones from Afghanistan, and people will continue to be killed. Recommend

  • Asad Munir
    Jul 4, 2011 - 10:28PM

    Khost and Jalalabad are the most appropriate airfields for Drones strikes against North Waziristan.It takes much lesser time as compared to Shamsi Air field.I have all my doubts that Shamsi has ever been used for armed drone strikes in FATA.It would take 15 to 30 minutes from Afghanistan for drones to reach North Waziristan ,while Operating drones from Shamsi would take more than 3 hours.Recommend

  • faraz
    Jul 4, 2011 - 10:44PM

    What’s funny is that UAE is a major financier of the same militant groups which are being targeted by drones that take off from the airbase that UAE has sub-leased to US. These Arab monarchs take absurdity to a whole new levelRecommend

  • abrar
    Jul 4, 2011 - 10:57PM

    The last sentence is the key point in the whole issue.These drones are entering Pakistani sovereign airspace from an airbase inside Pakistan.Who is permitting this?

    UAE lease if true was given for a civilian purpose.Under who’s legal authority UAE leased it out to a third country for a military purpose. Who’s interests was this UAE goverment safeguarding.

    Was the original lease a cover for later use?

    There are already media reports that UAE based elements are under suspicion for channelling funds used in creating instability in Pakistan.

    Pakistan needs to safe guard its independence and its falcons from outside predators.Recommend

  • Noor Nabi
    Jul 4, 2011 - 11:28PM

    The questions raised in this article are very intelligent and equally pertinent. At the same time they are theoretical. The bottom line is that the Pakistan military has been whoring the people of Pakistan for decades; what makes it even worse is that they have been offered for a “free ride” as any benefits accruing from such arrangements have only gone to enrich the members of a corrupt establishment. It is a well-known fact that the Gulf states are a bunch of fiefdoms that serve the interests of the United States. In essence the deal surrounding the Shamsi air base is a convoluted way to rent out the sovereignty of Pakistan and any decision to this effect was not ratified by parliament. One would expect the “ghairat brigade” to demand an answer from those who are responsible for such actions. Recommend

  • Jul 4, 2011 - 11:46PM


    chuckled at ‘ménage à trois’;)Recommend

  • Jul 5, 2011 - 1:07AM

    You are missing one important link. Pakistani administration is full of habitual liars. I don’t think they have the spine to tell USA to get out. However it does not stop them from declaring in public that they have told Americans to vacate the place.

    If Pakistani Government is serious about the issue, it should start by putting the relevant documents in public domain, and then taking legal action in public view.Recommend

  • Arindom
    Jul 5, 2011 - 1:56AM

    This is what you get when you cede (parts of Gilgit to China), lease (hunting and farming lands to Arabs) and ‘deal’ away your own sovereign territory to other countries!!Recommend

  • Chandler
    Jul 5, 2011 - 2:40AM

    What ever way you put it dear Ejaz, Shamsi airbase is up for grabs.
    Hurry before you lose it completely!Recommend

  • Mariya
    Jul 5, 2011 - 3:14AM

    Ejaz please write an article ‘ curious case of bully named America’ and later ‘curious case of silent pakistanis’

    We don’t have to fight but just put our foot down against the bully. We as a nation have nothing to lose now…we are victim of terrorism yet seen as terrorist around the world now.

    Our print and electronic media need to join hands together against America just like American media is doing against our country. Look how NYTimes and other major newspaper print anti-Pakistan news on its front page daily. The news is never from some credible source but some random street vendor opinion.

    BUT before we all stand up against the bully..lets stand and unite against the TRAITORS. For a very long time we have been silent…

    “Not only will we have to repent for the sins of bad people; but we also will have to repent for the appalling silence of good people.” — Martin Luther King

    We need to hang Musharraf and all those traitors and dictators who sold this country to the bullies. We need to unite against all traitors in the parliament and hang them publicly if we seriously want to save this country.

    Has anyone read the news of Gilani living in expensive hotels? He has the audacity to lie about shamsi he prime minister of Pakistan or some marasi of Lahore stage shows? I am amazed at the silence of Pakistanis….why are we not on street?

    Is there no one who feels insulted when we are stopped in Lahore for 25-30 minutes when Gilani is passing? I am not bothered about the safety of a traitor. Why is no one like me refusing to stop his/her car? I have ended up in verbal fights with the cantt police but nothing hurts me more than the silent man behind me.Recommend

  • rashid zaidi california
    Jul 5, 2011 - 6:03AM

    If duds like Mukhtar Ahmed can become Defence Minister of Pakistan. God help that already tattered nation.The Gujrat Chaudhries have been spoilers of Pakistan politics for a long time. Ejaz Butt is his brother in law and that is another dud who has screwed up Pakistan cricket. There was another one who became president of Pakistan, Chaudhry Fazal Ehalie, he liked to sleep during important meetings.It was alright till they were farmers, they had done it for a long time
    and then leather and shoe making was okay, getting into politics was a bit too much for dense brains like theirs..They use their money to influence the process which is an impediment in the development of Pakistan as a mature nation.They are not the only ones, Bhuttos, Zardari The Sharif brothers and so many others from all its parts do the same to screw up the nation in which they thrive.What a shame, these cowards should all be run out of town.God bless Pakistan.Recommend

  • Haris Chaudhry
    Jul 5, 2011 - 6:35AM

    For a state that ranks at the bottom of whatever global ranking there is (state of women, poverty, law and order, safety of journalists, GDP growth rate, literacy levels, suicide bombings, failed state index and more), telling US (still the global super power) that it will not compromise on sovereignty and wants it out of its country just does not cut it !!

    A military controlled and dominated state that still romanticises with its grand, king making plans and harbouring terrorists for strategic gains cant keep pulling the wool over world’s eyes.

    Shamsi or no shamsi, drones or no drones.. the fact is that we must stop pontificating about the “sovereignty” debate and desperately aim for somehow convincing the powers-to-be that we will be history if we immediately do not change course.

    The time for verbal semantics is well over. I don’t believe that based on the world’s appetite for jehadists, terrorists and dictators, that we have too long to go as a viable state.

    For gods sake, realise that we as a nation dont live in a cocoon and a vacuum, that we don’t have too long to go if we keep doing what we have done for the past 10 years. When USA decides it is time to let us go our merry way, Pakistan will collapse within days under its own debts.

    I just cant fathom, how tens of millions of this nation keep taking billions in aid from US and feel proud on the shiny weapons that it manufactures and gives us, yet keep abusing it and hating it with vengeance ! How does that work ?? What a sad lot of hypocrites we are…

    Haris ChaudhryRecommend

  • r
    Jul 5, 2011 - 7:24AM

    Playing victim has another name – UAE!!! Now it is the UAE that is the reason for not being able to ask the USA to leave!

    The simple is being made difficult by the influential media, on behalf of the powerful in the military.

    Is Shamsi inside the nation state of Pakistan? Now it doesn’t matter if the tenant is UAE and it subleased it to the USA. Quit fooling the people – as if Pakistani military (and UAE) did not know when it allowed the USA to appropriate the base.

    Why can’t the owner – Pakistan, ask UAE / USA to leave by a certain date? Leases are broken every day. Renters are kicked out for variety of reasons. Pride and listening to your own people are very good reasons. Remember, Phillipines, asked the US Navy to close down Subic Bay and they did. Europeans protested in the 80’s and the US closed down many bases there. Why can’t Pakistan do the same?Recommend

  • Mirza
    Jul 5, 2011 - 7:58AM

    @Noor Nabi:
    And all the others, your comments are as good, valuable and on target as Ejaz’s op-ed. Even though the author and most others used cautious language, Noor Nabi’s comments gave me a big chuckle. He told like it is without any BS. Thanks lot gentlemen; I cannot add anything more after your comments. I only have one question though. When Pakistan sold/leased the base for decades, where is the money going?
    In addition, this sale was not during the current govt’s term (just like protecting OBL in Abbottabad safe house) then why the various ministers are being used in public statements? These poor guys have no knowledge and info about any defense matter. Why would the army and air force Ghazi not come out and the truth? Public should demand from the army chief/ex-ISI chief to come out and tell the truth instead of hiding behind uninformed elected representatives. Usually ISPR loves to make daily statements why would they not clarify the situation, instead of misinformation?
    Thanks and regards,

  • AH
    Jul 5, 2011 - 8:26AM

    Could it be that people on our side have taken money for this favor, and are blackmailed into lying to the public for fear of being exposedRecommend

  • Usman Ahmad
    Jul 5, 2011 - 9:19AM

    Is Musharraf lying about the use of Shamsi airbase? No….I’m sorry sir I beg to differ. He is lying. He lied to his own corps commanders. Read this…

  • Irshad Khan
    Jul 5, 2011 - 9:28AM

    Very good analysis and useful information for which every Pakistani citizen has right to know. This information and repercussions should be openly discussed in our Parliament. While the agreement for Airbase was made with UAE in the year 1992 then why was it kept secret and not discussed in Parliament? Is it not necessary to take permission from Parliament before signing such agreements? All such agreements made by previous or present governments should be made public and discussed in Parliament such that a common citizen should understand where does he stands and how many chains are around him and where the money earned in such cases has gone. Our country`s land, either leased or sold, to other countries, does it not tantamounts to treachery. Recommend

  • Harish Puri
    Jul 5, 2011 - 10:53AM

    Sorry, one basic question – how do you LEASE one of your Air Force bases to a third country in the first place, no matter what the nature of that lease? And how do you THEN crib about sovereignty? Recommend

  • Ahmad Javed
    Jul 5, 2011 - 10:55AM

    Whom you are addressing, the Pakistani. have you forgot the remark by a US diplomat that ” they can sell their mother for few hundred dollars”. Come on, it is not a nation as yet. It is a group of people living in a geographical area not a state.Recommend

  • Feroz
    Jul 5, 2011 - 12:11PM

    @Haris Chaudhry:
    After reading your riposte there is nothing for me to add.
    Brilliant !Recommend

  • Nomaan
    Jul 5, 2011 - 1:12PM

    @Mariya. Well said. Recommend

  • Jul 5, 2011 - 1:48PM

    You missed the point to give a slight link to Badarbar base in Peshawar from where the U-2 flight was used for surveillance of former Soviet Union.Recommend

  • observer
    Jul 5, 2011 - 2:28PM

    @Ejaz Haider

    does a bird flying from Shamsi enter UAE airspace or Pakistan’s?

    Err, could you also tell me , Do the training camps of non-state actors occupy Pakistani territory?
    And when he jumps with joy after making a kill, does the non-state actor also enter Pakistani airspace?Recommend

  • Uza Syed
    Jul 5, 2011 - 2:39PM

    @Syed Nadir El-Edroos: “…… amok as they hunt an endangered species, and then we are more than happy to turn the other way……..” ——- Now, come on, how about their “hunt” (their lust for our this ‘not endangered species’) for ‘not so endangered species’ here the our usual hapiness (our lust for money) to turn the other way (our ghairat must be forcing us “to turn the other way”!).Recommend

  • guest-worker
    Jul 5, 2011 - 2:43PM

    Pak. Army Under Musharaff and Kayani has proved be worthless and impotent. Its a white elephant who retreats under threat and even when charging its ineffective. Not much to say about our judges either. They are your basic everyday cowards. If this continues we can look forward to Foreign Judges who will more decisive.Recommend

  • vasan
    Jul 5, 2011 - 4:52PM

    It is not only the airbase, I understand Pakistan has leased out agricultural lands to gulf countries for cultivation and repatriation of agri commodities to the gulf countries. I think it is a regressive policy when Pakistan itself is waterstressedRecommend

  • Ramesh
    Jul 5, 2011 - 4:55PM

    Picked up from Seinfeld probably ;)Recommend

  • Chengez K
    Jul 5, 2011 - 6:46PM

    Time to take Qabza back.If we do not kick out CIA from Shmasi base today tomorrow Gawadar would be under this global Qabza group.Recommend

  • Menon
    Jul 5, 2011 - 7:35PM

    the question all citizens of Pakistan should ask is; why UAE has an Airfield in Pakistan, for what purpose, who gave the rights to whom to sell Pakistani terrotory to UAE. Folks, if you don’t watch out, your leaders are going to sell your country, and take the money and all of you would be enslaved. Saudi owns farmland, UAE owns airfields and soon Kuwait will own navel bases and what else by whom?

  • Jul 5, 2011 - 8:49PM

    One word to describe this analysis: Thorough.

    I don’t expect anything less from the institution that Ejaz Haider has become.

    But what aches me is that parts of pakistan have been ceded, auctioned or just gifted without any due-process or transparency!!!!Recommend

  • Jul 6, 2011 - 12:59AM



  • r
    Jul 6, 2011 - 3:15AM

    Owners, Renters, mysterious landlords and their lawyers:

    * Arabs – The wanna-be farmers and falcon hunters
    * Americans – The habitual war makers – playing war and making wars
    * Persians – The neighborhood energy peddlers wanting to sell oil and gas but hiding their nuclear matches
    * Chinese – the new players with giant size ambitions to control the world and everything that spells OIL.

    “Mysterious” Landlords:
    Men in Khaki – they own everything, know everything, and write all leases to their chosen renters.

    Influential media people who exalt Saleem Shehzad but write letters to ISI – General Pasha in particular, and talk in legal tongues so as to keep the obvious fuzzy and people confused. Instead of calling a spade a spade – now we are told that we must “appreciate” the legal issues and deal with “curious case” – to ask the USA to leave, it is the UAE that needs to do that, not the men in Rawalpindi!

    the actual people. But they own nothing. They are too busy being manipualted by the renters, landlords and their skilled lawyers. Recommend

  • HiddenMask
    Jul 6, 2011 - 11:52AM

    You seem to know nothing about the Uae and blindly say the are just like the bad rulers for your information before the UAE was formed people were very poor and lived in houses made of Mud and because of our rulers giving us schools hospitals etc the Uae has become one of the Top countries in the middle east and i can tell you that 95% of buldings projects …etc are owned by people and not by the rulers or the government so instead of acusing us of financing terror at least open a wiki page and get your information straight .

    Thank youRecommend

  • Aamir
    Jul 6, 2011 - 1:52PM

    So what these Arabs are getting from sub-leasing (if we assume so) our land to America?? Its essentially a nested game.. Everyone here is maximizing its own profit disregarding the PEOPLE of Pakistan!!! And wht we are fighting over?? this is one of the countless other issues which evolve to surface for some days and then are burried deep down the earth.. I assure u my dear friends, Govt of Pakistan will ‘SOLVE’ this soon :) wht a pitty.Recommend

  • Tony Singh
    Jul 6, 2011 - 4:11PM

    @ author,
    The case is simple. Lease or no lease. Might is right.Recommend

  • sam
    Jul 6, 2011 - 10:32PM

    Excellent article.Well done

More in Pakistan