The Central Intelligence Agency is continuing to use a covert base inside Pakistan for drone strikes and other counterterrorism operations despite Islamabad’s public insistence that the facility has been closed, highlighting the increasingly complicated relationship between the two nominal allies in the wake of Osama bin Laden’s killing there earlier this year.
Senior U.S. and Pakistani officials said in interviews on Friday that CIA operations at the Shamsi air base in western Pakistan, a short distance from the Afghan border, were continuing unabated and that no American personnel had been withdrawn from the facility. The base is the hub of the CIA’s escalating campaign of drone strikes against militant leaders throughout Pakistan, a push that Obama administration officials credit with decimating the leadership of al-Qaida and many of its Islamist allies.
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“It’s business as usual,” a U.S. official familiar with the matter said. “There have been no operational changes there.”
The comments contradicted earlier remarks from Pakistani Defense Minister Chaudhry Ahmed Mukhtar, who told The Financial Times in an interview published on Friday that Islamabad had forced the CIA to stop using Shamsi for drone strikes and to withdraw its personnel from the facility.
“No U.S. flights are taking place from Shamsi any longer. If there have to be flights from this base, it will only be Pakistani flights,” Mukhtar told the newspaper. “We have ended all U.S. flights from the base.”
Pakistani officials have made similar statements before, only to quietly acknowledge later that operations at Shamsi were allowed to continue. That appears to be the case this time as well. A senior Pakistani official said in an interview that Shamsi wasn’t closing down and suggested that Mukhtar made his comments largely for public consumption within Pakistan, where the drone strikes are the source of widespread public fury. Pakistani officials like Mukhtar routinely blame the drone attacks for hundreds of civilian deaths and argue that they represent a serious infringement on Pakistani sovereignity.
Still, the contretemps underscores the bad blood between Washington and Islamabad in the wake of the unilateral American Special Operations raid on bin Laden's compound in Pakistan in May. Pakistan’s initial unease about bin Laden’s ability to live undetected within its borders for so long quickly morphed into a nationalistic anti-American backlash, prompting senior Pakistani military officials to explicitly warn that they would use force if American forces mounted any similar raids within their borders. Pakistan has also expelled about 140 American and British military trainers.
American officials, for their part, have made clear that they have no plans to wind down the drone campaign against militant targets inside Pakistan. Unmanned CIA Predator drones carried out at least 12 strikes inside Pakistan in June, the highest monthly total of the year, according to Long War Journal, a Web site tracking the campaign. So far this year, the CIA has carried out at least 40 such strikes, killing an estimated 269 militants, according to the site. Last year, the U.S. carried out a record 117 drone strikes inside Pakistan, double the 2009 level.
The Obama administration estimates that the drones have helped to wipe out roughly 20 of al-Qaida’s top leaders, including several militants once thought to be possible successors to bin Laden at the helm of the armed group. New Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, in a written message to the U.S. armed forces sent out shortly after he was sworn in on Friday morning, said the campaign against al-Qaida wouldn’t slow down anytime soon.
“We must prevail against our enemies,” said Panetta, who led the CIA during the successful bin Laden raid in May. “We will persist in our efforts to disrupt, dismantle, and ultimately defeat al-Qaida.”
This article appears in the July 1, 2011 edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.