Musings from afar

Selling F-16 fighter jets to Pakistan is not a sign of 'American duplicity'

The Islamabad factor cannot be allowed to derail positive momentum of India-US bilateral relationship.

 |  Musings from afar  |  4-minute read |   12-03-2016
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Last month the Obama administration announced that it had approved the sale of up to eight F-16 fighter jets to Pakistan in a deal valued at $699 million. Immediately it led to a strong pushback in the US Congress.

The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen Bob Corker, raised serious concerns stating, "They (Pakistan) continue to support the Taliban, the Haqqani network, and give safe haven to Al Qaeda."

Sen John McCain, chairman of the US Senate’s influential Armed Services committee, called for a hearing in the Senate’s Foreign Relations committee to further question the timing of the United States’ sale of fighter jets to Pakistan and suggested that he "would rather have seen it kicked over into the next administration." His colleague from Kentucky, Sen Rand Paul, called for a resolution that would block US arms sales to Pakistan.

Members of Congress have 30 days to block the deal before it becomes official, but the Obama administration has strongly defended its decision. David McKeeby, a spokesman for the US State Department — the agency responsible for conducting the deal — said, "Pakistan’s current F-16s have proven critical to the success of these operations to date. These operations reduce the ability of militants to use Pakistani territory as a safe haven for terrorism and a base of support for the insurgency in Afghanistan."

Also read: How Obama managed to win over India


Secretary of State John Kerry himself has been at the forefront of this defence, suggesting that the Pakistani military "has been deeply engaged in the fight against terrorism."

India’s reaction was strong. It disagreed with the US stand that this sale would help in the fight against terrorism and instead has argued that it would be used against India. The US ambassador to India was summoned to underscore India’s displeasure.

New Delhi is seriously concerned about the changing balance of air power in the region as Pakistan today has four squadrons of F-16 fighters, all built with the US assistance. The anti-US sentiment of the Indian elites once again came to the fore with suggestions in sections of the media that the US cannot be trusted.

New Delhi has some genuine concerns about US military assistance to Pakistan. Such support has traditionally strengthened the military at the expense of the civilian government in Islamabad with which India is trying to have a stable peace dialogue. Pakistan is yet to show that it is taking credible action against groups like the Haqqani network and Lashkar-e-Taiba. Groups targeting India and Afghanistan continue to be seen as essential in Pakistani foreign policy matrix. And historically, Washington has more often than not been wrong about its ability to shape Pakistani domestic and foreign policy positively with its military assistance.

Also read: America is on India's side against Pakistan terror

Since 2002, the US has provided $30 billion worth of aid and assistance to Pakistan. Yet the US remains unpopular in Pakistan and its Afghanistan policy of relying on Pakistan has been a failure. Clearly, America has its own priorities in so far as its relations with Pakistan are concerned, especially in using Pakistan’s leverage in the ongoing peace talks with the Taliban.

Obama’s Afghanistan policy has faced a lot criticism for its seeming haste in announcing the troop withdrawal from South Asia. Now, he has one last chance to seek a resolution in Afghanistan and Pakistan is viewed as critical in managing political transition in Afghanistan. But Washington would do well to take into account Indian interests.

Where the Bush administration managed to effectively de-hyphenate India and Pakistan, the Obama administration has not been that sensitive to the Indian viewpoint on regional issues. As it sends new fighters to Pakistan, Washington needs to be more emphatic in demanding Pakistan cease exporting terror from its soil.

India should also be more confident of its ability to shape the future trajectory of the Indo-American ties. After all, Lockheed Martin, the builder of F-16, has recently offered to move its production line to India from the US to support the Modi government’s "Make in India" programme. Today India is a global player in true sense of the term while Pakistan is just about managing to survive as a cohesive unit.

Indian elites too need to dehyphenate Delhi from Islamabad in their own minds. Any overture that Washington makes towards Islamabad is immediately pounced upon as a sign of American duplicity. The reality is that America’s ties with India are truly strategic, while its relationship with Pakistan is at best transactional, whatever the gloss the two sides might want to put on it.

India and the US are today talking of jointly working on aircraft carriers, discussing joint patrolling of the South China Sea and are nearing completion on an agreement to share military logistics. As Delhi and Washington chart an ambitious trajectory in their bilateral ties, they need to find an effective way of dealing with Pakistan.

The Pakistan factor cannot be allowed to derail the positive momentum in this bilateral relationship, one that will be key in shaping the larger Indo-Pacific balance of power in the coming years.

(Coutesy of Mail Today.)


Harsh V Pant Harsh V Pant

The writer is Professor of International Relations at King's College London. His most recent book is India's Afghan Muddle (HarperCollins).

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