F-16 was Pakistan’s weapon of first choice when Soviets walked into Afghanistan in 1979. First tranche of 40 aeroplanes was promptly delivered. Deadly combination of F-16 and Stinger, surface to air, air defence missile broke the will of Soviet-Afghan Air Forces to carry out hot pursuit operations inside Pakistan. Now again F-16 is the best suited aircraft to hit otherwise inaccessible hideouts of Afghan militants that American and Afghan governments are gunning at.
New York Time’s editorial board composed an editorial carried by the paper on May 12, under the caption “Time to Put the Squeeze on Pakistan”. Excerpts: “In coming weeks, General John Nicholson Jr., the new American commander in Afghanistan, will present his assessment of the war. It’s likely to be bleak and may question the wisdom of President Obama’s goal of cutting the American force of 10,000 troops to 5,500 by the end of the year. The truth is, regardless of troop levels, the only hope for long-term peace is negotiations with some factions of the Taliban. The key to that is Pakistan”. “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 US and Afghanistan, despite $33 billion in American aid and repeated attempts to reset relations on a more constructive course”.
Funny argument indeed, logic stands on its head, Nicholson’s assessment is likely to question Obama’s wisdom, and therefore, “Pakistan deserves much of blame”. Probably a lobbyist triggered editorial has been timed to deflect the pressure on American policy makers over withdrawal of subsidy on eight F-16 aircraft on behest of a cranky senator— Bob Corker. Erratic editorial goes on to suggest that this action alone is not sufficient and “President Obama declared, with undue optimism, more than 16 months ago that “the longest war in American history is coming to a responsible conclusion.” It will be left to his successor to figure out how and whether the Taliban can be lured into political negotiations. That will only happen if the American government finds a way to convince Pakistan to stop fueling the war”.
Supply of F-16s to Pakistan even when fully paid far has been a bumpy affair. Each time Americans (read Capitol Hill) attach ifs and buts, 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 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 the spilled milk, Indians are doing essential follow-up through American media.
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 $380m”. Even though mess in Afghanistan is collective failure of world, Pakistan bashing and squeezing is easiest course that American media and a few stray congressmen like Senator Bob Corker, often like to take.
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. Orlandosaid 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 stressedthe unmatching effectiveness of F-16s in the ongoing war on terrorism because of aircraft’s ability to deliver precision guided munitions that minimizesthe 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.
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 May12 in 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 US Central Command General Joseph Votel indicate that Pakistan is making effort to find a way to end impasse, 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?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 Chaudhary recently said that Pakistan needs modern F-16 fighter jets for its ongoing war against terrorism but rejects conditions the United States has attached with their sale. One wishes that our Mission in Washington had done effective lobbying well in time to avert the ignominy.
— The writer is consultant to IPRI on Policy and Strategic Response.