So what’s going on with the US drone base in Pakistan? Yesterday, the Financial Times wrote that the Pakistani Defense Minister, Ahmed Mukhtar, demanded that the US remove itself from the Shamsi air base used to launch drone attacks. But the US is apparently refusing to leave, and suggested they didn’t even know about the demand.

The United States is rejecting demands from Pakistani officials that American personnel abandon a military base used by the CIA to stage drone strikes against suspected militants, U.S. officials told Reuters.

U.S. personnel have not left the remote Pakistani military installation known as Shamsi Air Base and there is no plan for them to do so, said a U.S. official familiar with the matter, who asked for anonymity to discuss sensitive material.

“That base is neither vacated nor being vacated,” the official said. The information was confirmed by a second U.S. official.

Either the Pakistanis are all talk, or we have a major international incident on our hands.

I suspect it’s the former, because as McClatchy notes drone strikes are still occurring, with Pakistani cooperation.

The CIA still is launching drone strikes against al Qaida and allied extremists from a base in southwestern Pakistan, indicating that key facets of counterterrorism cooperation have survived the serious strains in U.S.-Pakistani relations since Osama bin Laden’s killing, U.S. officials said.

More high-profile cooperative programs have been throttled by the Pakistani military, which is furious that it was kept in the dark about the May 2 U.S. raid on bin Laden’s hideout near Islamabad, the Pakistani capital. U.S. military trainers have been ordered out of the country and visas for U.S. officials have been held up.

But the covert cooperation that U.S. officials consider the heart of the counterterrorism effort — including strikes by unmanned, missile-firing drones that have reportedly killed at least 35 extremist leaders since 2004 — is continuing.

In other words, the Pakistani defense minister wanted his domestic audience to know that they were not capitulating to the Americans, while behind the scenes…. capitulating to the Americans.

Now, that could be an argument for domestic consumption in the US, and behind the scenes the relationship is really more fraught. But it’s hard to pretend that drone attacks don’t exist, and there doesn’t seem to be any reason to believe that they have stopped or even slowed down.

However, just the headache this kind of double game produces provides more reason for the US to want to find a different base of operations for these attacks. Somewhere like Afghanistan. Indeed, top counter-terrorism official John Brennan alluded to this the other day:

The agency also flies drones from sites in Afghanistan, so a decision by Pakistan to end the agency’s use of Shamsi likely wouldn’t deal a major blow to one of the most successful — and controversial — U.S. counterterrorism programs.

In an indirect acknowledgment that drone strikes would continue no matter what, Brennan said, “In some places such as the tribal regions between Afghanistan and Pakistan, we will deliver precise and overwhelming force against al Qaida.”

If you want to know why we’re still hanging around in Afghanistan when we changed the mission, there you go.

David Dayen

David Dayen