November 26, 2011

Awaiting the Fire Behind Shamsi’s Smoke

In the latest dramatic response to a series of escalating crises, Islamabad has issued a 15-day eviction notice on Shamsi air field following NATO’s cross-boarder raid into Pakistan. Located in the mountainous regions of Balochistan province, Shamsi served as a forward positioning base for U.S. troops during the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan.

The facility later witnessed Washington’s initial drone runs between 2002 and 2006.

Due to a variety of factors, the political aftermath surrounding Baizai is simultaneously obscured and clear. The emerging details of NATO’s raid shape Islamabad’s reaction; some of the 40-50 Pakistani soldiers based at the outpost were killed in their sleep. Army spokesman Major-General Athar Abbas also ruled out an accident, saying that NATO has received maps of Pakistan’s outposts along the border. Islamabad responded with an emergency meeting of all armed forces, chaired by Prime Minister Yousuf Gilani and attended by the Interior, Defense, Foreign, Information and Finance Ministers.

Pakistani officials needed something big to send a message to both Washington and their public, and Shamsi must come next on the list of threats after closing Khyber Pass.

Conversely, the isolated threat over Shamsi may be hollowed out by Islamabad’s hedged position in the region. A 15-day order suggests that Pakistani officials can be modified with the appropriate U.S. response, either politically or economically. Islamabad needs something to show its public and is presumably open to negotiations. Even in the event that Washington offers no amends, Khyber Pass will eventually reopen and U.S. drones will continue flying in Pakistani airspace.

The Obama administration's drone network over the Horn of Africa also demonstrates the minor loss that Shamsi would entail. As many media reports note, U.S. personnel reportedly vacated the base somewhere between 2009 and 2011. The Pentagon and CIA moved the majority of their operations into Afghanistan due to Shamsi’s very concern: “the United States decided to open the Afghanistan operation in part because of the possibility that the Pakistani government, facing growing anti-American sentiment at home, might force the C.I.A. to close the one in Pakistan.”

Access was also reportedly ended at PAF Base Shahbaz near Jacobabad, located deep inside Pakistan.

The CIA now conducts “most of its Predator missile and bomb strikes on targets in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region from the Jalalabad base,” with secondary launchpads operating in Bagram airfield and Kandahar airfield. The base’s inherent confusion still lingers over its status. One U.S. official told CNN earlier this year, “There are no US forces at Shamsi Air Base in Balochistan.” Months later, in June, Pakistani Defense Minister Ahmed Mukhtar told reporters, "We have told them (the U.S. officials) to leave the airbase.” A U.S. official would respond that Muktar’s comments were “news to us.”

Pakistani officials could still be playing a long double game with America's drones. In either case, the loss of Shamsi is irrelevant now that the CIA and Special Ops beefed up their forces in Afghanistan. Early flights out of Pakistan can be attributed to secrecy rather than convenience, and drones now fly out of Afghanistan without fear of being compromised.

However logistical solutions fail to resolve Baizai’s overriding dilemma: political fallout. A "full investigation" is unlikely to convince many Pakistanis of America's accountability, and smoothing over one pothole leaves a treacherous road for Washington to navigate. The military dimension itself has been compromised - how do U.S. warplanes and their high technology mistake militant cells for a Pakistani outpost? The incident is deadly, insulting and embarrassing - a cross-spectrum loss for Washington. Accordingly, Islamabad has ordered “a complete review of all programs, activities and cooperative arrangements with US/Nato/Isaf, including diplomatic, political, military and intelligence.”

"The attack on Pakistan Army border posts is totally unacceptable and warrants an effective national response," read a statement from Pakistan's Defense Committee.

Any pullback from cooperating with NATO forces will serve as the real punishment behind Saturday’s raid; Shamsi appears to be a smokescreen for the fire to come. Relations usually return to “normal” no matter how dramatic the incident, but Washington cannot count on the situation to revert to normal after every error. That Islamabad’s patience with regional militants has grown thinner by the year doesn’t add any meat to U.S.-Pakistani relations - where normal remains inherently unstable.


  1. IMO there has never been any thing close to "normal" relations between Pakistan and the U.S.
    This relationship will fade into the abyss.
    Pakistan has nothing more to gain from being a target zone for the West.
    It will look more and more to the East.

  2. A concrete trend, but long-term as well.

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