F-16’s impact on Pak-US relations
K. Iqbal
5/16/2016

 

A few years back an Indian diplomat approached this scribe on the side-lines of a think tank activity and asked a blunt question: ‘Sir! Aren’t you excessively harsh about India in your columns?’This surprised me about level of Indian High Commission’s superb efficiency with regard to keeping a keen eye on Pakistan’s print media and engaging those whom they thought were harsh towards India. I gave the diplomat reasons underlying my though process about India; he agreed with some and disagreed with some. Around that time India had finalized French Rafael as its future medium multi-role aircraft. I asked him as to why India had preferred Rafael over F-16s given that French military equipment is comparatively expensive and difficult to maintain and that Indian Air Force did not have a refreshing experience with their Mirage 2000-5 fleet. Indian diplomat’ reply was a treat: “Sir, we have dropped F-16 option after as we have learnt from Pakistan’s experience, we do not want to put our neck in to the American noose”, or words to that effect.

The supply of F-16s to Pakistan even when fully paid, has been a bumpy affair. Each time the Americans (read Capitol Hill) attach ‘if’s’ and ‘but’s’, there is public outcry in Pakistan for a fresh look on Pakistan-US relations. Eventually, every time the aeroplanes have been delivered, though with added price and strings. F-16s have never been used against India, yet Indian lobby has frequently managed to, at least, delay the deliveries.

This speaks volumes about the shortfall in Pakistan’s diplomatic acumen and lobbying capacity. Ironically, this time India had hired Pakistan’s former ambassador to the US Hussein Haqqani to plead the Indian case! They succeeded, we failed. While we are proverbially crying over spilled milk, Indians are doing essential follow-up through American media.

New York Times in its May 13 editorial, captioned “Time to Put the Squeeze on Pakistan” has urged the US government to take actions against Pakistan for continuing to play a double game in its dealings with the US and Afghanistan: “Nearly 15 years after 9/11, the war in Afghanistan is raging and Pakistan deserves much of the blame. It remains a duplicitous and dangerous partner for the United States and Afghanistan, despite $33 billion in American aid and repeated attempts to reset relations on a more constructive course”.

The editorial bares its teeth to justify blocking of subsidy for F16s: “Senator Bob Corker, Republican of Tennessee, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has wisely barred the use of American aid to underwrite Pakistan’s purchase of eight F-16 jet fighters. Pakistan will still be allowed to purchase the planes, but at a cost of $700 million instead of about $380 million”. Even though mess in Afghanistan is a collective failure of the world, Pakistan bashing and squeezing is the easiest course that American media and a few stray congressmen like Senator Bob Corker, often like to take.

This NYT editorial seems to be a well-coordinated activity by the vested interests to mitigate the impact of Pakistan’s strong reaction on the F-16’s issue. Pakistan’s Ambassador to the US has aptly responded to this editorial, saying that “Pakistan cannot be held responsible for the mess in Afghanistan which is the result of collective failure of the international community”. Erratic presidential hopeful Donald Trump is feeling itchy about Dr Shakil Afridi, a CIA spy.

The eight F-16s would eventually end up in Pakistan because the manufacturer of the aircraft fears shutting down of F-16 production line if this order does not mature. As of now, Lockheed Martin Corporation is using its own funds to pay suppliers and stave off the closure of its F-16 fighter jet production line as it waits to finalise orders from Pakistan and other countries, a company official said. “We will have a gap in the production line because of the fact that there hasn’t been another order yet,” Orlando Carvalho, who heads Lockheed’s Aeronautics division, said. Orlando said Lockheed was working with the US government, which is in talks with India about possibly building F-16s in India.

Susan Ouzts, vice president of Lockheed’s F-16 programme, told reporters that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had expressed “substantial” interest in the plane during a recent meeting with Lockheed. She said Lockheed officials would travel to India next month with a formal offer. This could be the underlying cause for the current F-16 fiasco, India might have preconditioned its negotiations with halting further supplies to Pakistan, and knowing the economic vulnerability of Pakistan, withdrawal of subsidy route may been adopted to soft kill the deal. If the talks with India do not mature during the coming visit of Modi to the US, which is most likely, then Lockheed Martin may become the biggest lobbyist for arranging requisite funds for Pakistan.

Pakistan has decided to contact the Obama Administration to provide the balance amount through FMF as it does not have the money to buy F-16 jets from its resources. Pakistan has stressed the unmatching effectiveness of F-16s in the ongoing war on terrorism because of aircraft’s ability to deliver precision guided munitions that minimizes the chances of collateral damage to non-combatant personnel and infrastructure. Pakistan has conveyed to the US that if the stalemate over funding is not resolved, it may consider buying some other fighter aircraft, from some other source to meet its needs.

Over the years, the gap between Pakistan government’s approach of readily scrumming to American pressure and public aspiration of standing up to American pressure has increased to a point that it is difficult for the government to reconcile it. Hence, at times some government functionaries also find it convenient to jockey between official stance and public mood. Foreign Secretary Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhary recently said that Pakistan needs modern F-16 fighter jets for its ongoing war against terrorism but rejects the conditions the United States has attached with their sale. The foreign secretary said no conditions should be attached to the sale of F-16s because Pakistan plans to use the jets only for the purpose of fighting terrorists. One wishes that our Mission in Washington had done effective lobbying well in time to avert the ignominy.

Saner lawmakers and State Department officials support the sale, saying Pakistan needs to modernise its air force and counter-terrorism activities. But there is growing concern in Washington about providing the same level of assistance to Pakistan unless it shows it is using the funds effectively to eliminate militants. The dilemma for Pakistan is that it cannot afford a rupture in relations with the US nor pick up a confrontation with it. In the conduct of foreign relations, engagement is the name of the game.

Delivering a policy statement in the upper house of parliament on May12thin the wake of an adjournment motion on F-16 issue Adviser to Prime Minister on Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz said that decisions of the US Congress may have been caused by concerns raised by the US on the nuclear issue which was categorically rejected by Pakistan. “We have also rejected the frequent demand, especially from the US Congress, for the release of Shakil Afridi,” the adviser said.

A letter written by the Defence Minister to US Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter last month, and recently statements of the defence secretary in a meeting with commander of the US Central Command General Joseph Votel indicate that Pakistan is making effort to find a way to end the impasse, the questions is are the Americans too equally keen in this regard?

The ultimate question is just one: can Pakistan learn to stand on its feet with or without resolving the latest F-16 riddle with the US?