THE mystery surrounding the Shamsi air base in Balochistan deepens by the day. On Wednesday, Defence Minister Ahmed Mukhtar called on the US to vacate the base in Kharan, which many suspect is used to launch drones that fire missiles into Fata. But on Thursday an American official speaking to Reuters said, “That base is neither vacated nor being vacated.” The questions are many. What is the agreement regarding Shamsi air base? If the Pakistanis are in control of it, what need is there to 'ask' the Americans to leave? If the Americans control it, under what laws and agreement have they been permitted to and who on the Pakistani side has signed off on it? That foreign countries can control air bases in Pakistan was acknowledged during the in-camera parliamentary session following the Osama bin Laden raid, when it was suggested that Shamsi was under the control of the UAE. And beyond the issue of who is in physical control of the base, is there any agreement about what kinds of assets are allowed to be flown out of Shamsi? If armed drones are still taking off from and landing at the base — some reports suggest the CIA may have already relocated the drone strikes programme to Afghanistan — are they doing so as a collaborative intelligence operation with Pakistan or are the strikes in Fata unilateral?
If the mystery surrounding Shamsi air base is deep, the one surrounding the exact nature and state of the overall relationship between the US and Pakistan is even deeper. A report in this newspaper yesterday suggested that Pakistan has succumbed to US pressure after American officials warned that curtailing the US presence in Pakistan would lead to a slowdown in the disbursement of aid and technical assistance to the military. At the same time, fresh meetings on counterterrorism cooperation between the two countries are set to go ahead. So, a relationship on the mend or one still stuck in a very deep trough? It's difficult to say. Perhaps more common sense and restraint from both sides would help.