ISLAMABAD/WASHINGTON: The US is preparing to accede to Pakistan’s demands that it vacate Shamsi airbase, with their operations set to be further hindered by Nato supply routes remaining closed “until they apologise to Pakistan”.
Pakistan demanded that the US leave the remote airbase used for drone flights within 15 days and blocked ground supply routes to US forces in Afghanistan, following the Nato attack on a military outpost last weekend that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.
Three sources, who declined to be identified, said that US’ plans to leave the base are under way. The move, however, is not expected to have a significant impact on operations against militants, according to US government sources.
Defence Minister Chaudhry Ahmad Mukhtar, meanwhile, reiterated the decision taken by the Defence Committee on Cabinet (DCC) after the “Isaf misadventure”, saying that the Shamsi airbase will be shut down on December 11 “at every cost”.
Talking to the media, the minister said, “We do not want to go to war with the US, but we will use other options to protect national sovereignty and integrity.” Mukhtar added that US activities at the Shahbaz Airbase will also be inspected to determine what is going on there.
One US government source said the US has spent months preparing for a possible eviction from the airbase by building up other drone launching and staging capability.
Earlier this year, after the US raid that killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, some Pakistani officials demanded that Washington vacate the Shamsi facility.
At the time, however, US officials said that American personnel would remain at the base and would continue to conduct drone flights.
US officials believe that this time Pakistan appears much more resolute about carrying out the eviction threat.
Vacating the airbase was seen more as an inconvenience rather than a critical blow to drone operations, which the US also conducts from Afghanistan and possibly elsewhere.
Responding to question about similar retracted decisions in the past, the defence minister said, “There is a major policy shift this time. We have done what was necessary this time”. He added that Nato will have to tender an apology.
Blocked supply route
The US also has to deal with the blocking of the ground supply route through Pakistan to Afghanistan.
US Congressman C A ‘Dutch’ Ruppersberger, the senior Democrat on the House of Representatives intelligence committee, said that route accounts for less than half the supplies for international forces in Afghanistan.
“We have a large distribution network to make sure that coalition forces are well-stocked,” he told Reuters. “It’s not going to affect our ability to follow through and execute our mission.”
Yet alternative supply routes such as the northern distribution network are not a perfect substitute and there are concerns that the cost of keeping soldiers fed, armed and fuelled without use of Pakistani roads would be excessive.
(REUTERS with ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY PEER MUHAMMAD)
Published in The Express Tribune, December 1st, 2011.