January Issue 2005
The last of the air bases in Pakistan occupied by US troops , Shahbaz Airbase in Jacobabad, has finally been vacated with the troops relocating to a destination in the Middle East.
The Jacobabad base, located about 480 kilometers north of Karachi and southeast of Kandahar, was one of four Pakistani bases used by US and allied forces to support the ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’ campaign in Afghanistan. The other three bases — Dalbandin, Pasni, and Kharan — were quietly vacated over a year ago.
Pakistani military spokesman, Major General Shaukat Sultan, confirmed the permanent withdrawal of the last US troops from the airbase. “There are 10 to 15 American technical personnel present in the country and the rest have left Pakistan,” he told Newsline.
A highly placed source in the Pakistan Air Force said the process of vacating the strategically vital base began in mid-October. All important military hardware and most personnel had already been moved and the facility is now under the control of the Pakistani Air Force.
Following the US decision to launch the campaign in Afghanistan, hundreds of US Army soldiers were housed in aircraft hangars at the air base. In early December 2001, Pakistan agreed to a US request for a long-term presence at Jacobabad, and permitted US Marines to renovate the base and build a concrete hangar for 50 large planes and air-conditioned barracks for troops. The US requested 40,000 metric tons of concrete to renovate the base and construct a four feet wall surrounding it. During that phase, all but a few Pakistani liaison officers were withdrawn from the base. At the height of the US assault on Afghanistan, both Jacobabad and Pasni bases had been sealed off and a five kilometer cordon set up around the bases by Pakistani security forces.
Since mid-October 2001, a number of US C-130 aircraft have been stationed at the Jacobabad airbase together with some helicopters and fighter jets. Though ISPR and the foreign affairs ministry always denied that the airbases were used to launch attacks inside Afghanistan, various credible eye witness accounts and media reports suggested night time sorties with fighter jets taking off from the base for Afghanistan to deliver their deadly cargo. According to the terms of an agreement with Pakistan, however, the US and allied forces were only authorised to use the bases for search and rescue missions.
Due to the standoff between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, the US was forced to share the Jacobabad facility with the Pakistani Air Force after January 2002. The base is a key Forward Operational Base that becomes fully operational during wartime.
Jacobabad is the third largest airport in the country in terms of area and one of the few airports in Pakistan that can be used for both military and commercial flight operations. By early 2002, the US had done extensive construction and repair work at Jacobabad, and installed radar equipment. The number of US troops at the base has varied between 200 and 600 Marines.
Jacobabad was the scene of several protests by opponents of the US airstrikes on Afghanistan. The Jamaat-e-Islami, a staunch opponent of supporting the US in its ‘war against terror’ had repeatedly threatened to storm the air base. When the party tried to march to the Jacobabad airfield on October 14, 2001, one person was killed and 24 people injured in clashes with police. By late October 2001, roads to the city were blocked for days to prevent the entry of protestors. But on October 23, around 200 JI activists appeared in the city, and at least 100 protesters were arrested. Subsequently, the protests subsided.
As the last of the American troops flew out of Shahbaz air base mid-November, there were reports that army officers reportedly detained on terrorism-related charges had been moved to the Jacobabad base and could be shifted to the US for interrogation. The ISPR has denied the reports, saying detained officers would be tried as per the rules and regulations of the Pakistan Army and there was no question of handing them over to a foreign country.