ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Facing domestic political pressure, Pakistan’s government escalated the war of words with the United States, with its defense minister repeating calls for the U.S. to stop using a remote air base for drone strikes and to vacate the base.
Relations between the two uneasy allies have been on a downward slide for months, but deteriorated after the May 2 raid by U.S. SEALs in Abbottabad that killed Osama bin Laden.
Bin Laden’s presence in a military town less than a kilometer from Pakistan’s version of West Point reinforced suspicion in the United States that elements of Pakistan’s security establishment may have helped hide him.
Wednesday’s remarks by Defense Minister Ahmed Mukhtar that the U.S. had been asked to vacate Shamsi Air Base, in the remote southwest part of the country, was the latest salvo as the two countries tussle over their interests in an Afghanistan settlement and the Pakistani government seeks to publicly distance itself from Washington.
“We have been talking to them (on the issue) for some time, but after May 2, we told them again,” Mukhtar told Reuters on Thursday. “When they (U.S. forces) will not operate from there (Shamsi base), no drone attacks will be carried out.”
Earlier the Financial Times quoted him as saying that Pakistan had already stopped U.S. drone flights from the air base.
Pakistan has long opposed the Central Intelligence Agency’s unacknowledged drone campaign against militants based in Pakistan’s tribal badlands on the Afghan border as a violation of its sovereignty.
But in private the government and the military have offered a degree of support for the strikes, including giving intelligence to help target members of al Qaeda and the Taliban.
Despite Mukhtar’s statements, it’s unclear what the situation at Shamsi is, with the United States, the Pakistani military and local officials giving conflicting statements on whether drones and U.S. personnel were still based there.
A U.S. military official said no American military personnel had ever been stationed at the base, but the drone program in Pakistan is run by the CIA, and the official declined to comment on that.
Pakistani military officials confirmed that the United States had been asked to vacate the base, but wouldn’t comment on when the request had been made or whether the Americans had complied.
“We have told them to leave, vacate our base. We cannot provide security to their people,” a senior air force official, who declined to be identified, told Reuters.
But a member of parliament who represents the area, retired lieutenant general Abdul Qadir Baluch, told Reuters that U.S. officials were still in the base.
Pakistan has been at pains to distance itself from the United States since the May 2 raid that killed bin Laden.
Its military has come under almost unprecedented criticism for not detecting the American forces until they had left, and the civilian government is increasing unpopular because of austerity measures, rising prices and a general perception of corruption and incompetence.
A major ally of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party also quit the governing coalition on Monday, increasing the pressure on the government, although it maintains its majority in parliament and is in no danger of falling.
Pakistan’s army has drastically cut down the number of U.S. troops allowed in the country and set clear limits on intelligence sharing with the United States, reflecting its anger over what it sees as continuing U.S. interference in its affairs.
Additional reporting Sanjeev Miglani; Writing by Chris Allbritton; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani