THE Obama administration last week notified the US Congress that it would sell eight F-16 fighter jets to Pakistan. The announcement follows heated congressional debate and several delays, during which both Republicans and Democrats have criticised the deal and engaged in Pakistan-bashing. The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, describing Pakistan as a “duplicitous partner”, said he would block subsidies on the deal.
Despite the resistance, a congressional veto is unlikely at this stage, and the deal will go ahead. As such, it is a reminder that despite a decade of hand-wringing over the transactional and misaligned nature of the US-Pakistan bilateral relationship, little progress has been made on either side.
There is an uncomfortable history to contend with in this case: following the Pressler Amendment and subsequent imposition of nuclear sanctions on Pakistan, the US in 1990 cancelled the sale of 28 F-16s (the supply only resumed after 9/11 and Pakistan’s agreement to support the US-led war on terror).
India has raged against the US decision to sell F-16s to Pakistan.
The sale (or not) of F-16s is enmeshed with a Pakistani narrative about repeated abandonments and betrayals by the US — during the 1965 and 1971 wars, the Pressler Amendment, the post-Afghanistan vanishing act, the finalisation of the US-India civilian nuclear deal in 2008 — and the idea that Washington is only generous when it wants to exploit Pakistan to further its own goals.
In keeping with the pattern, the F-16 deal comes at a time when the on-again, off-again US-Pakistan relationship is starting to recover from the many debacles of 2011 — Raymond Davis, Abbottabad, Salala — and the US is increasingly worried about the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan.
The two Sharifs made separate visits to Washington last year and called for an enduring partnership. The US continues to pump Pakistani coffers with dollars: in 2015, the US appropriated around $371 million in aid related to security and $468m in economic assistance for Pakistan. A further $1 billion was released in the form of Coalition Support Fund payments to support counterterrorism operations.
This does not, however, mean that relations between the two are hunky dory. As congressional debate regarding the deal has shown, attitudes towards Pakistan in the United States are quite sour, the main complaint being that Pakistan continues to support the Haqqani network, which in turn targets American soldiers in Afghanistan. Pakistan is meanwhile sensing another exit by the US from the region and appears to be turning its mind to other allies — ie China, Saudi Arabia — and reviving its old strategies in Afghanistan. Pakistan is also irked that even after ‘doing more’ — including the launch of major counterterrorism operations in North Waziristan — it has to face further demands from Washington to crack down on anti-India groups, particularly the Laskhar-e-Taiba.
The gradual re-hyphenation of Pakistan and India in Washington will lead to further challenges in the US-Pakistan equation. Pakistan blamed delays in the F-16 approval on the growing efficacy of Indian lobbyists on Capitol Hill. India for its part has raged against the US decision to sell the F-16s, saying they will be used against India, rather than in the fight against regional militancy.
There are some who speculate that the F-16 notification is timed to coincide with the latest development regarding India’s nuclear mainstreaming, its ratification of the insurance pooling agreement of the Convention on Supplementary Compensation, which relates to liability in the event of a nuclear accident.
If true, this is an awkward balancing act, particularly following the recent brouhaha after it was suggested that the US would support Pakistan’s entry to the Nuclear Suppliers Group if it agreed to caps on its nuclear programme.
The India dimension of the US-Pakistan relationship is increasing at a time when American fatigue of what it terms to be Pakistani duplicity is leading to greater scrutiny of Pentagon and White House largesse towards Pakistan: in March 2015, the House Committee on Foreign Affairs froze $150m in foreign military financing and halted the delivery of US Navy cutter vessels since they were not necessary for counterterrorism operations; $300m of CSF funding was also withheld because Pakistan did not meet the aid conditions.
The more Pakistan perceives such actions that are borne of frustration as being driven by Indian lobbyists, the more dim the prospects for a new alignment between Islamabad and Washington.
Even with fighter jets arriving in Pakistan, resentments in both Islamabad and Washington are likely to grow deeper, and become more complex. Rather than focus on completing transactions, the two sides should take advantage of the gradual improvement in ties to work on improving trust and transparency.
The writer is a freelance journalist.
Published in Dawn, February 15th, 2016