Shamsi air base, New bone of contention in Pak-US relations
July 15, 2011
In recent weeks Pakistani and American leaders have given seriously conflicting statements about their position toward Shamsi air base. The small airstrip, also known Bandari, located about 200 miles southwest of Quetta near the town of Washki in Balochistan, has thrown the two strategic partners in the so-called War against Terrorism at loggerheads. Control of the air base has become another bone of contention in the already strained Pakistan-US relations.
The dispute started with Defence Minister Chaudhry Ahmad’s statement that Washington has been asked to vacate the base. “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.
Washington didn’t like being dictated to by Pakistan. Rebutting the minister’s statement via Reuters, an American official said: “The United States is rejecting demands from Pakistani officials that American personnel abandon a military base used by the CIA to stage drone strikes against suspected militants.”
The consequences of this unprecedented stance remain to be seen. US officials insist that Shamsi is not being vacated, nor will it be vacated, and that the US will rather continue to use the base US officials maintain that the United States plans to keep using an airstrip inside Pakistan for drone flights against militants. The airstrip at Shamsi in Balochistan will continue to be used for some drone surveillance operations. “The US personnel have not left the base and have no plans to abandon it,” another American official said.
The age old aphorism about too many cooks spoiling the broth certainly hold true in this particular case. An interesting twist in this murky tale was added when Federal Minister for Information and Broadcasting Dr Firdous Ashiq Awan said that news of Pakistan demanding the United States exit Shamsi Airbase was bogus. Speaking to the media in Lahore, Firdous said that she was a member of the Defence Committee and nothing of this sort was discussed during the meeting.
Adding another twist to the controversy between the two countries over the CIA's unmanned spy plane campaign, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said that his government had never allowed the US to use Pakistani airbases for drone strikes in the tribal region!
Interacting with reporters in his hometown of Multan, the PM said, "My government has not allowed the US to use Pakistani airbases for drone strikes. The previous government of President Pervez Musharraf had allowed the US to use airbases for reconnaissance purposes.”
In the Line of Fire Musharraf wrote: “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.”
Shamsi air base was given to American forces for use after 9/11 and drone attacks were launched from the base on targets in the tribal areas. It has been occupied by the CIA since 2004 and it was disclosed when Google Earth released images showing three Predator drones parked on the runway. The base’s infrastructure has been expanded with new constructions, like aircraft hangars, coming up in last few years.
In 2009, media reports revealed that the airfield was used by the United States Central Intelligence Agency as a base for Predator drone attacks on so-called militants in Pakistan’s tribal areas but ended up killing several hundreds innocent people. On January 9, 2002 a US Marine Corps KC-130 aircraft reportedly crashed on approach to Shamsi. All seven crew members were killed in the crash.
In February 2009, The Times of London had announced that it had obtained Google images from 2006 which showed Predator aircraft parked outside a hangar at the end of the runway of the Shamsi airfield. The US company Blackwater was also reported to have a presence there, hired by the government to arm the drones with missiles.
The mystery surrounding Shamsi deepens by the day. In yet another startling revelation, Air Chief Rao Qamar Suleman admitted during an in-camera joint session of parliament that the said airbase was under the control of the UAE and not the Air Force.
The comment stunned lawmakers and ordinary Pakistanis.
If we consider and belief the statement of Air Chief Rao Qamar Suleman as the gospel truth, then there must be some airspace terms and conditions. What were the height band, aerial distance with reference to Shamsi base?
Shamsi base is basically an aerodrome. According to Internation Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) definition stated in Annex 14, an aerodrome is “a defined area on land or water (including any buildings, installations, and equipment) intended to be used either wholly or in part for the arrival, departure and surface movement of aircraft.”
Every airport or runway from where an aircraft can take off or land has its own jurisdiction. For Shamsi base, for example, the jurisdiction is upto 10NM and level restriction is 7000 feet or below. So does this mean that any aircraft that takes off from Shamsi is free of level, route and area restriction? Such violation means that the PAF has totally failed to control airspace violations.
There is no contact of unmanned aircraft with Air Traffic Controllers (ATC). This distrubs and endangers the prescribed air routes of converging and conflicting air traffic, both scheduled and non-scheduled. This means that even the routes have been handed over for attacks.
The question is, have the routes been leased to the UAE along with the base? And most importantly: whose property is Shamsi airbase? Does it belong to the Pakistan Air Force or to the Civil Aviation Authorirty? Who is getting the revenue from Shamsi base?
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. Reko Diq in Balochistan is a case in point.
If, on the other hand, the lease is governed by a treaty, then it becomes a sovereign agreement. 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. In the absence of any documents, one can only conjecture.
The plot thickens. A UAE official only added to the mystery by strongly denying to The Associated Press that “the Gulf state has any operational role in the Shamsi airfield.” The official who had requested anonymity to discuss the sensitive subject, said, “wealthy Arabs have occasionally used it to fly to Pakistan on hunting expeditions….The extent of its involvement today is that UAE sheiks and others may use the airfield for “recreational purposes” such as hunting expeditions”.
The Associate Press wrote that the official who had been briefed on the subject by the Gulf state’s Foreign Ministry, said, “those private, civilian planes that come in for hunting and falconry trips must get clearance from Pakistani aviation authorities and file flight plans. The base “was never operated nor controlled by the UAE.”
Why is Shamsi airbase so important to the US that it has point blankly refused to comply with Pakistan’s demands?
Right now America is totally focused on Balochistan belt, espeically Dalbadin and Pasni, from where Pakistan’s West sector is adaject to Iran and Afghanistan. Since Balochistan is a desert aera it is very conducive from security point of view. The cities and towns are far from the airports. A wide area can be scaned with the naked eye; anyone approaching can easily be seen and targeted. Hence, there is no danger to the drones stationed at Shamsi from being attacked.
North Waziristan is a mountain terrain and climate wise it very adequate for American troops. The mountains and hills form a rampart between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Drone attacks in this area from Shamsi base is beneficial for America; displace the local population and flush out anti-American people. All this in order to set up a CIA regional headquaters here. The 67 CIA agents given visas by Pakistan are part of this broader plan.
This is preceisly why America refuses to comply with Pakistani wishes. In bilateral military relationships, bases are provided with mutual consultations. For instance, Pakistan had provided a base near the then NWFP in early 1950s to USA from where it used to operate spy missions over the then USSR till a U-2 spy plane was shot down by the Red Army and Khrushchev had openly declared marking the province (NWFP) as a target on his hit list. After that Pakistan asked the Americans to close down the base and they complied; it showed that there were mutually agreed conditions that regulated the base operations.
However, it is not known what are the conditions that govern the provision of Shamis and Jacobbad bases under US control now, or if there are any. Jacobbad, aslo known as Shahbaz base, is the backbone of Pakistan aviation.
It is clear that Shamis base was obtained through coercion, and under coercion the terms are dictated and not discussed. The fact that the US has outright refused to vacate the air base confirms that dictation; otherwise a demand from a sovereign state is not ignored.