Eye on AfghanistanDetails emerge about CIA use of Pakistani airbase to strike militants

Published 19 February 2009

Shamsi airbase lies in a sparsely populated area about 190 miles southwest of the city of Quetta; it is also 100 miles south of the border with Afghanistan’s southern province of Helmand and about 100 miles east of the border with Iran

More information has come to light about how the CIA has been secretly using an airbase in southern Pakistan to launch the Predator drones that observe and attack al-Qaeda and Taliban militants on the Pakistani side of the border with Afghanistan. Note that the Pakistani and U.S. governments have repeatedly denied that Washington is running military operations, covert or otherwise, on Pakistani territory. The Pakistani government, at least in its public announcements, has also repeatedly demanded that the United States halt UAV attacks on northern tribal areas.

Now, to facts on the ground. The Times’s Tom Coghlan, Zahid Hussain, and Jeremy Page write that the CIA has been using the Shamsi airfield — originally built by Arab sheikhs for falconry expeditions in the southwestern province of Baluchistan — for at least a year. The strip, which is about thirty miles from the Afghan border, allows U.S. forces to launch a UAV within minutes of receiving actionable intelligence as well as allowing them to attack targets further afield.

It was not a secret that U.S. special forces used Shamsi during the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, but the Pakistani government declared publicly in 2006 that the Americans had left it and two other airbases.

The Times writers reveal that there was an unexplained delivery of 730,000 gallons of F34 aviation fuel to Shamsi. Details were found on the Web site of the Pentagon’s fuel procurement agency. The Defense Energy Support Center site shows that a civilian company, Denmark-based Nordic Camp Supply (NCS), was contracted to deliver the fuel, worth $3.2 million, from Pakistan Refineries near Karachi. It also shows the fuel was delivered last year, when the United States escalated UAV attacks on Pakistan’s lawless tribal areas, attacks which killed several top Taliban and al-Qaeda targets, but also many civilians.

A source at NCS, which is based in Denmark, confirmed that the company had been awarded the contract and had supplied the fuel to Shamsi, but declined to give further details.

The CIA declined to comment, as did the Pentagon, but one senior Western source familiar with U.S. operations in Pakistan and Afghanistan told the Times that the CIA “runs Predator flights routinely” from Shamsi. “We can see the planes flying from the base,” said Safar Khan, a local journalist. “The area around the base is a high-security zone and no one is allowed there.” He said that the outer perimeter of Shamsi was guarded by Pakistani military, but the airfield itself was under the control of American forces.

Shamsi lies in a sparsely populated area about 190 miles southwest of the city of Quetta, which U.S. intelligence officials believe is used as a staging post by senior Taliban leaders, including Mullah Omar. It is also 100 miles south of the border with Afghanistan’s southern province of Helmand and about 100 miles east of the border with Iran. This would put the Predators, which have a range of more than 2,000 miles and can fly for 29 hours, within reach of militants in Baluchistan, southern Afghanistan, and in Pakistan’s northern tribal areas.

Paul Smyth, head of operational studies at the Royal United Services Institute, said that 730,000 gallons of F34, also known as JP8, was not enough to supply regular Hercules tanker flights but was sufficient to sustain drones or helicopters. Other experts said that Shamsi’s airstrip was too short for most aircraft, but was big enough for Predators and ideally located as there were few civilians in the surrounding area to witness the drones coming and going.

Farhatullah Babar, a spokesman for Asif Ali Zardari, Pakistan’s president, said that he did not know anything about the airfield. Major General Athar Abbas, however, the chief military spokesman, confirmed that U.S. forces were using Shamsi. “The airfield is being used only for logistics,” he said, without elaborating. He added that the Americans were also using another airbase near Jacobabad, 300 miles northeast of Karachi, for logistics and military operations.