Pakistan has asked the U.S. to leave the airbase it is using in Shamsi for drone operations in the region by December 11. The order comes after the November 26 NATO air attack on a border patrol in which more than 24 Pakistani soldiers were killed.
Reuters reports that the airbase is used by the U.S. for clandestine counter-terrorism operations against suspected encampments of Islamic militants associated with al Qaeda, the Taliban and Pakistan's "home-grown" Haqqani network.
The U.S. ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter, confirmed that the United States has been asked to leave the Shamsi Air Base in the Balochistan Province of Quettas. The Shamsi Air Base is one of the bases for drone operations over Pakistan and Afghanistan. Major attacks on Islamic militants in Pakistan and Afghanistan have been launched from the airbase. The airbase is also used for refueling.
Reuters reports that on Monday, a Pakistani military official, who did not want to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said: "There is some activity happening at the base because of the deadline given to the Americans. They are moving some equipment and vacating personnel."
Some experts have said, however, that loss of the base though significant for U.S. drone operations in the region, will not have a major impact because the airbase in Kandahar, Afghanistan, is the primary base for launching drone operations in the region. CNN reports that a U.S. official said on Sunday: "...loss of access to this base would not lessen capabilities, as it has served primarily as a back-up capability for quite a while now."
Anthony Cordesman, an expert in strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told CNN that if Pakistan decides to follow up by closing its air space to the U.S. and stops giving assistance, U.S. military operations in the region could be severely affected. Cordesman said if Pakistan closes its air space, the U.S. may be forced to use it covertly. According to Cordesman,
"If you're going to do this, you're clearly violating Pakistani airspace and, if you're going to do it, you may have to rely much more on stealth. International law is clear. You can't, in theory, send an intelligence aircraft over somebody's airspace. Period. The fact that people do it all the time doesn't make it legal. If you go beyond that, and the vehicle or airplane shoots something, that's an act of war."
A former CIA official Mike Baker, said that Pakistan is unlikely to close its air space to the U.S. because U.S. strikes on Islamic militants is in the interest of both countries. Baker, according to CNN, described closure of the base as, "one more step down this dysfunctional road with the Pakistanis." But he said he was sure cooperation between the CIA, the U.S. military, Pakistani military and agencies will continue. CNN quotes Baker as saying: "Regardless of what happens in the headlines, there is an operational level of activity that continues to move forward because, ultimately, it is in the Pakistanis' best interest to continue to try to counter some of the extremists' activity."
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, have called the incident "a tragedy." Both U.S. officials offered condolences. On Sunday, President Barack Obama called Pakistan's president and expressed condolences. He told the Pakistani president that the attack was not deliberate.
Meanwhile, a probe into the fatal NATO airstrike has begun. Pakistan Daily Times reports that American Ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter, has confirmed the U.S. will vacate the air base within stipulated time. In an interview with the Pakistani state television, Munter said outcome of investigations on the attack will be shared with Pakistan. The U.S. Ambassador promised action would be taken against "elements responsible for the attack."