Air Marshal Ayaz A Khan (R)Tuesday, October 18, 2011 - The disused Bhandari airstrip 200 miles south of Quetta in Balochistan was gifted to Shiekh Zahid Al-Nahyan the ruler of Abu Dhabi by the government of Pakistan in the 1990’s. The airstrip called Shamsi was developed by Emirates Shieks into a jet capable airfield , and was used for falcon hunting of rare Bustards in Balochistan. It was leased out to US Central Intelligence Agency in 2001 by UAE with President Musharraf’s approval, and was developed by the United States Air Force as a military air base in great secrecy for bombing of Afghanistan. CIA occupation of the base clearly had his approval. General Pervez Musharraf as President should have comprehended the long time strategic implications of handing over Shamsi air base to Washington! Development of of Shamsi for clandestine operations was kept a highly guarded secret, and Chief Minister Magsi and even Corps Commander were not allowed to visit it, when it was being developed for Drone operations and construction of the required infrastructure for this purpose was taking place. There is no evidence on record that the UAE government handed over Shamsi to the CIA for Drone operations. I was general Musharraf who handed over Shamsi and allowed US Air Force operations against Taliban and Al-Qaeda militants from some other PAF bases including the Shahbaz Air Base. The PPP led government continued Musharraf’s policies till recently, and allowed CIA to launch Predator drones from Shamsi Air Base for the destruction of terrorist hideouts in FATA. Islamabad’s denials that the government was unaware of CIA drone operations from Shamsi till very recently, may be justified by being kept in the dark, by ally America, which has refused to share anti-terrorist intelligence with Pakistan.
The United States spent billions of dollars on the development of Shamsi air base. The USAF developed Bandari airstrip into a jet capable airfield with long runways for handling bombers and heavy transport aircraft. Shami has taxiways, tarmacs and refueling facilities for sustained bomber, fighter and drone operations. By 2006 Predator drones began to be launched against Taliban hideouts and selected targets in the tribal belt. Shamsi has remained a busy base for anti-terrorist operations in FATA. Few weeks back Washington post reported that three months ago the US had stopped air and drone strikes from Shamsi base. This was soon after the Raymond Davis dispute exploded into a full fledged fiasco. The Post reported that US-CIA personnel and the Predator drones remain at Shamsi air base till further decision. Recently Google Earth showed three predator drones parked on the Shamsi tarmac, next to a hangar.
During the last six years Predator drones launched from Shamsi Air Base killed hundreds of militants and in collateral damage greater number of civilian men women and children have been killed and injured. It is shocking that Pakistani soil is being used for launching American missiles for bombing Pakistani villages and homes in FATA and killing Pakistani citizens along with foreign militants. The drones cannot distinguish Pakistani citizens from Al-Qaeda terrorists. Thus drone attacks kill peaceful citizens along with the terrorists. According to some defence specialists the collateral damage in Pakistan is minimal as compared to Afghanistan. The Tehrik-Taliban- Pakistan and its god father Al-Qaeda are engaged in suicide attacks across Pakistan including FATA and in Afghanistan. They bomb mosques, hotels, bazars, police stations, schools, military, Rangers, FC, CID and Navy installations. They kidnap and murder people and have killed 36000 Pakistani’s including 5000 military personnel. They are enemy number one of the Pakistani nation. Across the border in Afghanistan the terrorists target NATO, and Afghan National Army installations, hotels and shopping centers. It is unfortunate that thousands of Pakistani nationals have become terrorists and are sheltering foreign and local criminals in the tribal Agencies and elsewhere, with the motive to spread myhem, death and destruction in their own country. Washington considers Predator attacks on their Hujras and villages justified with drone missiles to end the terrorist menace. Pakistani protests to pressure America to stop drone attacks to wipe out terrorism have a humanistic face, but are difficult to justify, considering terrorist massacres and destruction, and adverse effect on national morale. Hillary Rodham Clinton the US Secretary of State, Robert Gates the Defense secretary and Director CIA Leon Panetta, who is the new US Defense Secretary have categorically rejected Pakistani pleas to stop drone attacks, asserting that the Pakistani establishment in the past had approved such attacks, which were being launched from Shamsi Air Base. The nation needs to be told the truth.
The nation must be told the truth about the gifting, leasing out or renting of the Shamsi Air base to the UAE, the CIA and the United States Air Force. The terms and conditions must be known to remove the impression that the United States has forcibly usurped the Shamsi base, and has plans for perpetual occupation of the strategically important air base.
A PAF officeer who declined to be identified said, “ We have told them to vacate the base. We are unable to provide security to their people”. In a tough response on June 30, US authorities responded, “ United States is rejecting demands from Pakistani officials that American personnel abandon the Shamsi military base used by the CIA to stage drone strikes against suspected militants. US Personnel have not left the remote military installation , and there is no plan for them to do so. The base is neither vacated, nor being vacated. This blunt rejection of the Pakistani demand was confirmed by another senior US official. Having spent billions on the base infrastructure, and being fully resolved to eradicate terrorist safe heavens in FATA, US drone operations from the Shamsi air base are likely to continue unabated. This will add fuel to the fire of the acrimonious Pak-US relationship over the intensified drone bombings and violation of Pakistani sovereignty by the Obama Administration.
Undeterred by blunt US response Defense Minister Ahmed Mukhtar claimed that, “ Shamsi air base is being shuttered, and drone operations from it had stopped.” This claim was rejected by the US disclaimer from Washington. But Ahmed Mukhtar told Reuters, “ When the US forces will not operate from there, no drone attacks will be carried.” This expectation was rudely rejected by US officials. But a crafty CIA official remarked that no American military personnel had ever been stationed at Shamsi air base. The drone program from in Pakistan (from the Shamsi air base) is run by the CIA.” CIA Director Leon Panetta, who has been promoted as US Defense Secretary, during his last visit to Islamabad was urged by President Asef Ali Zardari and Prime Minister yusuf reza Gilani to bring an end to the drone attacks and devastation in FATA. Panetta bluntly rejected to halt drone attacks, and refused to assure the top Pakistani leaders that drone attacks could be halted.
In an incisive article Brigadier Farooq Hameed Khan comments about the strategic advantages that the United States drives from the occupation of Shamsi air base. “This airfiels provides a launch pad 200 miles south of Quetta, where the US believes hides the Afghan Taliban Shura led by Mullah Omar. CIA believes that Mullah Omar is hiding in Quetta, much like Osama bin Laden lived undetected in Abbottabad. Shamsi base is one hundred miles east of the Iranian border, and is ideally located for spying on Iran. It enables the United States to conduct spying and covert intelligence missions into and around Iran. Washington considers Tehran as its foremost foe, and will use Shamsi base to gather vital intelligence information about Iran. And importantly it is not too far from Chagai-Pakistan’s nuclear test site. Being close to the Balochistan coast it enables the US to spy over Gwadar, and keep an eye on Pak-China collaboration for the development of this important sea port, and an important trading center in the future. Shamsi will enable CIA to gather data about Pakistan’s coastal areas, with several vital Pakistan Navy installations there. In the adjoining Arabian Sea the massive presence of US Navy’s aircraft carriers, missile firing cruisers, destroyers, submarines and landing craft provide evidence of massive sea power, menacing deployed posing a very serious threat to Pakistan’s security and sovereignty.
As a first step, Pakistan could urge the US by diplomatic means, to share the Shamsi air base with Pakistan Air Force, for joint operations against terrorists. ISI may offer to cooperate with the CIA for sharing intelligence information about Taliban and Al-Qaeda fugitives. This is a difficult exercise, but we cannot and should not allow permanent occupation of a strategic air base by a foreign power. Shamsi air base is being used for launching drone attacks by the CIA. While Pakistans sovereignty has been trampled under foot, The collateral damage has killed hundreds of innocent civilians. This must stop.