ISLAMABAD - The CIA sponsored drone campaign in Pakistan‘s North-Western Tribal region is likely to remain stalled amid the reports that the US may not find a feasible alternative venue to target Pak-Afghan borderlands after having tangled into a deadlock with Pakistan over Mohmand attack row.
Till mid last month, the Central intelligence Agency (CIA) oversaw drone hits in Pakistan’s Waziristan region mostly from Shamsi base in Balochistan province and partly from a US base in Khost province, Afghanistan.
After the US AC-130H Spectre gunship choppers targeted a couple of military check posts in Mohmand Agency killing two dozen Pak soldiers on November 26th, Pakistan gave a 15-day deadline to the US to vacate Shamsi base that followed its evacuation by December 11th. Since then, there has been a complete halt in drone hits.
Including the covert base in Khost, the US has seven operational military bases located in Kandahar, Herat, Parwan, Helmand and Nimroz provinces.
With exception to Khost base that is under the operational command of CIA, the US Army, Air Force and Navy jointly administers the remaining six bases. Reportedly, the United States mulled over using Shindand base in Helmand, Bagram base in Parwan and Camp Leatherneck base in Nimroz province as launching pads for drone-hits in Pakistani borderlands but the idea ceased to work owing to the engagements of these bases in extensive aerial operations in Afghanistan and the Pakistan’s refusal to allow CIA carry on with the covert drone programme in its Tribal area in the post November 26th scenario.
Talking to The Nation Abdullah Khan Director Conflict Monitoring Centre (CMC), an Islamabad-based think-tank that monitors conflict scenario in South Asia, said the CIA had the option of using Khost base for drones but things were to be different compared to Shamsi base.
‘Its not as convenient and easy as it used to be. There are too many operational constraints involved in launching drone strikes from Khost compared to Shamsi. Secondly, given that Pakistan has completely disrupted intelligence sharing on drones, it’s next to impossible for them (CIA) to continue with drones here’, he said.
Elaborating on the operational constraints for drones programme at Khost base, Khan said: ‘It’s not only about drones. There’s this whole lot of surveillance, spying and military movement that were being overseen from Shamsi. That’s not possible from Afghanistan due to proximity factor. The Khost base had come under a deadly suicide attack last year’.
According to the CMC figures, 78 drone attacks in the ongoing year have killed 607 persons including militants and civilians in the Pakistan’s tribal region while 306 drone strikes claimed 3659 lives in this region since 2004. The last drone-hit was reported in the Shawal area of North Waziristan that killed some six to nine persons. The Khost provincial government spokesman Mubarez Zadran expressed ignorance regarding the presence of covert military base for drones in Khost. ‘This is something nobody would want to speak on.
Yes, the US military bases are there and that’s no hidden affair but these bases are not being used for drone-hits in Pakistan. I think you better consult US military on this’, he suggested to this scribe.
Neither the US Embassy in Islamabad nor the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) officially comment on the CIA drone programme.
The NATO officials in Afghanistan, when contacted on prior occasions, had denied having any relevance with drone hits in Pakistan. According to officials at a diplomatic mission, the US was actively considering to establish covert military bases in Central Asia for continuing drone-hits in Pakistan but the Central Asian Republics (CARs) refused to provide launching pads owing to Russia’s pressure.
Russia has serious disagreements with the US presence in Afghanistan.
In October this year, the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to Pakistan alongwith top military officials had followed a secretive agreement on drones as part of the renewed military Pak-US cooperation after a spree of hostility. Unearthed by The Nation on October 22nd, the agreement envisaged resumption of intelligence cooperation between Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and CIA for hunting down the militants on both sides of the border.