Shamsi airfield, in the Baluchistan region in southern Pakistan, has become the new ground zero in the United States war against the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
The Times, London, reports that the Central Intelligence Agency is covertly using the Shamsi airfield, located just 30 miles from the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, to launch Predator strikes on Taliban and Al Qaeda bases on the Pakistani side of the border with Afghanistan -- a fact repeatedly denied by Washington, DC and Islamabad.
The airstrip's proximity to the border is what makes it attractive for the covert operation, since it becomes possible for the CIA to launch strikes within minutes of receiving positive intelligence.
The Times ran its own investigation and pieced together details of the ongoing operation from the fact of an unexplained delivery of 730,000 gallons of F34 aviation fuel to Shamsi. The Defence Energy Support Centre site shows, says the London-based paper, that a civilian company, Nordic Camp Supply, 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 drone attacks on Pakistan's lawless tribal areas.
While US embassy spokesmen in Pakistan denied that US troops were based in Pakistan, they refused to comment on any operations the CIA might be running out of Afghanistan. However, in recent times, Pakistan newspapers have repeatedly highlighted Predator attacks on Pakistan soil, paying special attention to the deaths of civilians in the raids.
The Times points out that Shamsi lies in a sparsely populated area about 190 miles southwest of the city of Quetta, which US intelligence officials believe is used as a staging post by senior Taliban leaders including Mullah Omar. That puts 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, the paper points out.
The continued Predator strikes -- the latest in the series occurred on February 16 -- is the focal point of a diplomatic stand-off between Pakistan and the United States. US President Barack Obama had said, both during his campaign and during the transition phase, that the US would attack high value targets wherever they were found.
Monday's strike was the fourth major Predator raid since Obama took office on January 20, and Pakistan officials have claimed that it killed 31 people in the tribal agency of Kurram, adding to 25 people killed in a February 14 raid on the South Waziristan region.
The Predator is more a system than an aircraft, with each operational system comprising four aircraft, one ground control station, a Predator Primary Satellite Link, and ground support staff. The entire unit including the craft can be disassembled and loaded into what they term a 'coffin', for shipment to wherever they are required.
The aircraft is unmanned; they are 'flown' by one 'pilot' and two sensor operators based in the ground control station. The pilot uses line of sight data from the cameras carried in the Predator's nose cone, plus satellite imagery, to navigate the plane and to acquire targets. Each craft carries two laser-guided AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, which contributed considerably to the US' shock and awe tactics in operations such as Desert Storm, Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom. The upgraded laser guidance system of Hellfire II allows the operator, working from the ground control station, to put a missile through a specific window of the target building.