Syed Irfan Raza
28 November 2011
Islamabad: Sunday saw a flurry of activities in the capital as the government went into overdrive to express its anger over the Nato air strike that took place in the early hours of Saturday.
While the American administration was informed of the decisions taken by the Defence Committee of the Cabinet, including the blocking of the Nato supply routes as well as the deadline to vacate Shamsi airbase, the opposition raised questions about the preparedness of the military personnel who had been killed in the attack.
In accordance with the DCC decision, Pakistan suspended Nato supplies to Afghanistan and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was informed about it.
Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar spoke to Ms Clinton by telephone in the early hours of Sunday, conveying the decisions taken by the DCC.
Talking to reporters, Interior Minister Rehman Malik claimed that the supply of Nato had not been suspended, but “stopped permanently” in line with DCC’s decisions.
He said all other decisions of the DCC would be implemented in letter and spirit. “The decisions of the DCC are final and would be implemented.”
The minister said Nato containers, which had been stopped, would not be allowed to cross the border into Afghanistan.
According to a statement issued by the Foreign Office, the foreign minister conveyed “deep sense of rage felt across Pakistan” over loss of 28 soldiers and told Ms Clinton that “such attacks are totally unacceptable”.
She said that such strikes demonstrated complete disregard for international law and human life and were in stark violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty.
The foreign minister was quoted as saying: “This negates the progress made by the two countries on improving relations and forces Pakistan to revisit the terms of engagement.”
She also informed Ms Clinton about the DCC decision that the US should vacate the Shamsi airbase within 15 days. The US secretary of state offered condolences over the loss of life, the statement said.
Ms Clinton said she was deeply saddened by the event and conveyed the US government’s desire to work with Pakistan to resolve the issue.
Meanwhile, the military authorities negated the US claim that Nato had carried out strikes after its helicopters had come under fire from the ground.
“These were lame excuses that the attack was made after Pakistani soldiers opened fire on Nato forces or that Nato forces were chasing the Taliban in the area,” said Inter-Services Public Relations Director General Major-Geneneral Athar Abbas.
Nato has already been communicated about two Pakistani posts in Mohmand Agency called ‘Golden’ and ‘Volcano’ on the top of the height in the area with national flag hoisted over them. “Even then they were attacked,” he said.
He said Mohmand Agency had been cleared of militants during the four-month operation and there was no militants’ hideout in the area. Therefore, he said, the US claim that Nato forces were chasing the Taliban was ‘ill-logical’.
General Abbas said the Nato attacks continued for a long time during which the military’s General Headquarters contacted the Nato authorities and apprised them of the aerial attacks. However, Nato officials did not take any action to stop such provocative strikes.
Asked if Pakistan will be involved in investigation announced by the Nato chief to probe into the incident, he said the modus operandi of the investigation was yet to be decided.
President-PM Meeting: President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani met at the presidency and discussed the Nato attacks for the second consecutive day.
Sources in the presidency told Dawn that the president and the prime minister were worried that the Nato strikes had taken place soon after the ‘memogate’ that had soured relations between the civilian set-up and the military establishment.
Opposition: Calling for a joint session of parliament to debate the Nato air strike, Leader of Opposition in the National Assembly Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan questioned at a news conference why army officers and soldiers had been caught unawares and unprepared.
The PML-N leader said that although he considered the present rulers mainly responsible for the killings of soldiers, the military leadership could not be absolved completely of its responsibility.
Not only the rulers, but even Army Chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani had in the past threatened to retaliate if the US carried out drone attacks, he said, adding that the drone attacks were continuing and there had been no response from the military.
He said the May 2 Abbottabad incident and recent Nato air strikes on security posts had raised many questions about the defence preparedness of the armed forces. Was there any arrangement to provide the soldiers a cover at the posts against any aggression? he asked. He said if anti-aircraft guns are installed at these posts. “If the guns are there then why these were not used?”
He said: “Previously former army chief General Pervez Musharraf sent the troops to the top of a hill at Kargil and later left them to be killed.”
Chaudhry Nisar said soldiers in such a large number could not be killed simply by strafing if they had been in bunkers.
When asked if his party wanted a commission to investigate the incident, he said first the replies to these questions should be presented in parliament.
The PML-N leader said his party wanted a joint session of parliament within a few days much before Ashura. He demanded that it should be an open session because the time had come for the nation to be informed about facts.
He welcomed the decisions taken by the DCC, but raised serious doubts about their implementation. He regretted that the government did not take any step to implement the resolutions adopted by parliament and the all-party conference.
Chaudhry Nisar claimed that it was the PML-N which had raised the issue of Shamsi airbase in a joint session of parliament and demanded that its foreign control must be ended.
Despite an announcement by the government that the US had been asked to vacate the airbase in Balochistan, it is not clear who controls the base.
When asked what would be the line of action if the US did not vacate the base in 15 days as recommended by the DCC, ISPR director general Major-General Athar Abbas said “Speculative. Speculative means we will cross the bridge when it comes.”
During a briefing to parliament in June in the aftermath of the killing of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, top military officials had disclosed that the airfield, long suspected of housing US drones, was actually not a Pakistan Air Force facility and its control had been handed over to the United Arab Emirates in 1990s.
Later, in an interview with AP a UAE official denied that his country had any operational role in the base, although he said that wealthy Arabs occasionally used it to fly to Pakistan on hunting expeditions.
The US reportedly used the airbase as a forward staging point in the initial period after it invaded Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks. Reports surfaced in the media in 2008 that the drones used in attacks on tribal areas were taking off from the Shamsi airfield.
Two weeks after the parliamentary briefing, Defence Minister Chaudhry Ahmed Mukhtar said that Pakistan had asked the US to withdraw its forces from the airbase and that it would be vacated soon.
The minister had even claimed that the Americans had started moving equipment and materials from the airbase. A defence ministry official had stated that the government had decided to get the base vacated because of a significant reduction in the flow of US funds and growing trust deficit between the two countries.
A US Embassy spokesperson at that time stated that there were no US military personnel at the base.
Attempts were made to contact officials of the US Embassy in Islamabad to get its version over the government decision to get the airbase vacated, but there was no response.