NATO’s Pakistan Raid Dents Pak-U.S. Ties

Pakistan for the first time publicly asked the United States to vacate its strategically important air base in the country’s southwest in angry reaction to the Friday night killing of 24 soldiers in a NATO bombing of two border posts in a tribal region.
Pakistan’s powerful military and the top civilian leadership were on the same page to seek U.S. vacation of the Shamsi air base in Balochistan province within 15 days when they met at an emergency session of the Defence Committee of the Cabinet (DCC) Saturday night. Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani presided over the DCC meeting and Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff Committee, three services chiefs and several key ministers attended the meeting.
Call for vacation of the Pakistan Air Force key base, near the border with Afghanistan and Iran, also resolved the long mystery as to who had been using the air base. When former President Pervez Musharraf took a U-turn on Pakistan’s policy vis-a-vis the Afghan Taliban and joined the U.S-led coalition following the 9/11 attacks, Shamsi was one of the bases handed over to the American forces to use against the Taliban in Afghanistan.
The Shamsi air base, located some 320 km southwest of Quetta, the provincial capital, was believed to be used by the U.S. for military operations in Afghanistan until 2006. Pakistan media have reported quite a few times that the same air field was also used for the CIA-run drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal regions against the al-Qaeda remnants, Afghan and Pakistan Taliban in 2009.
Pakistan Air Force Chief Air Marshal Rao Qamar Suleman disclosed in the parliament days after the killing of Osama bin Laden that the Shamsi air base had been under the control of the United Arab Emirates. The local media then reported that the UAE had also allowed the U.S. to use the facility for drone aircraft operations.
The U.S. has not yet responded to Islamabad’s call but the development has put the U.S. in an awkward situation as Pakistan has made it public that the facility is under the use of the American army. The U.S. has always been very sensitive when secrets are made public and they will prefer to quit the Pakistani base as it will now feel its troops or assets, if any, in risk there. The facility had been very useful for the U.S. as it was safe to stay and easily to use for operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan and even for spying on Iran and other neighboring countries.
The NATO raid also led to closure of Pakistan’s land route for nearly 150,000 foreign forces in neighboring Afghanistan. Some 70 percent supplies are transported for U.S.-led NATO forces via Pakistan, the shortest route. The U.S. has already struck a deal with Russia and several Central Asian states for alternate routes in view of routine attacks on NATO supply vehicles in Pakistan. There had been a brief disruption in NATO supplies in the past but if Pakistan blocked the route for a long time, it could affect supplies for foreign forces as the long and complicated Russian and Central Asian routes would not meet requirements of NATO forces.
Sensing gravity of the situation the U.S. and NATO expressed regrets over the deaths of Pakistanis and promised investigation. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton conveyed condolences when Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar rang up her to tell that the Pakistani leadership wants the U.S. to vacate the country ‘ s air base and that Islamabad has closed the NATO supply line. The NATO Secretary General also issued a condolence message but this may not placate the angry Pakistan as the country’s leadership has already insisted that the NATO bombing was not an accident but was an intentional act. Pakistan’s chief military spokesman Athar Abbas says the NATO-bombed area had been cleared by Pakistani forces of militants and there was no justification for the NATO action. The NATO says investigation into the raid is being done and an unidentified Western diplomat has been quoted as saying that the NATO fighter planes fired in self defence.
Pakistan also argues that NATO/ISAF attacks were also violative of their mandate which was confined to Afghanistan and that Pakistan had clearly conveyed to the US/NATO/ISAF its red lines which constituted an integral element of Pakistan’s cooperation that was based on a partnership approach.
Another serious warning has come from Pakistan to “undertake a complete review of all programs, activities and cooperative arrangements with the US/NATO/ISAF, including diplomatic, political, military and intelligence.” This decision is worrisome for the U.S. and its NATO allies at a time when foreign forces have started withdrawal from Afghanistan and the war-shattered country stability and Islamabad’s role is believed to be very important for peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan. The NATO raid is seen as a serious blow for peace efforts in Afghanistan, which has already been halted in the wake of the tragic assassination of the chief of the Afghan Peace High Council, Prof. Burhanuddin Rabbani in September. Pakistan is believed to have deep influence on the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani Network and can bring them to the negotiation table but in the current circumstances, Pakistan would not agree to play any role.
Local media reports that Pakistan may boycott the coming Bonn Conference on Afghanistan has sent troublesome messages across the world although the Pakistani Foreign Ministry has not confirmed the reports but also did not deny it. The Afghan Foreign Ministry issued a special appeal to Pakistan not to boycott the conference. The Afghan Foreign Ministry hoped that Pakistan had promised to attend the conference at the Foreign Minister’s level and that it would honor its promise. The German Foreign Minister also called his Pakistani counterpart on Sunday and it is believed that he asked Pakistan to attend the conference.
Pakistani officials say they would wait and see what action the U.S. and NATO take against those responsible for the deadly raid and would take more steps in the near future. Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani will speak in the parliament to make a policy statement and he may announce more steps to review ties with the U. S. and NATO.

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