-Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain-
The F-16 fighter aircraft is a symbol of modern war technologies and has been in existence for close to 40 years. Ever since the United States (US) decided to supply these to Pakistan the aircraft has become almost an instrument of diplomacy. Threatening to hold back promised supplies from time to time the US has unsuccessfully attempted to use it as a tool to contain and subsequently limit Pakistan’s racing ambitions in the field of nuclear weaponry and the use of radical terror as a weapon, with a carrot and stick policy. It is unsuccessful because its own interests are never in sync with the interests of those who make up the region, or the larger threats of the world. The Glenn, Symington and Pressler Amendments were such instruments of control but despite these Pakistan today has over 70 x F-16s in its inventory and more seem to be coming in. The issue needs a deeper background description.
The Symington Amendment was first implemented in 1979 because of Pakistan’s clandestine import of material for the Kahuta uranium-enrichment facility, a facility which is not subject to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards. It was waived in 1981 in the wake of the necessity to have Pakistan’s cooperation in the fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan. Behind Israel and Egypt, Pakistan became the third largest receiver of US military aid till 1989.
As soon as the Berlin wall fell in 1989 and the Soviets withdrew, Pakistan’s frontline status dwindled in the eyes of the US lawmakers and executive. The Pressler Amendment was already in place in 1985 but was implemented in 1989. Under this the President was to certify that Pakistan was not in possession of a nuclear device and that the proposed assistance ‘would reduce significantly’ the risk of possession of such a device in future. Since certification was not given it ended all foreign military sales to Pakistan. The first batch of F-16s had been delivered by then and the balance was placed on hold.
The Glenn Amendment was a more comprehensive legislation on nuclear proliferation limiting Foreign Military Sales to any non-nuclear state. It took effect in 1994 and was applied to both India and Pakistan in 1998 after the testing of nuclear devices by both countries. In October 1999 some more democracy related sanctions were imposed on Pakistan as a result of the ‘Musharraf coup’. However every one of these amendments and sanctions were given a waiver on 22nd October 2001 after 9/11. Pakistan’s cooperation was once again required in the wake of the decision to intervene in Afghanistan, effect regime change and destroy the Taliban.
Through the Millennium thus far US dependence on Pakistan to stabilise Afghanistan has only increased. However, it too is fully aware that despite the quantum of aid that Pakistan has received (cumulatively believed to be between $10 billion to $35 Billion), US control over Pakistan’s activities in and related to Afghanistan is limited.
Through this period Pakistan has followed a policy of hunting with the hounds and running with the hares. Its strategy has been centered on projecting itself as the champion of counter terrorism and counter extremist ideology to attract maximum US aid. This is coupled with the adjunct strategy of employing radical ideology and resources attached to it (radical terrorists friendly to Pakistan) in pursuance of its goals vis-à-vis India. The strategy did not emerge overnight in this Millennium but was conceived as a part of the Diabolic Zia Plan in 1977 to seek retribution for the loss of its eastern segment (now Bangladesh). The opportunities came Pakistan’s way in 1989 while the global order commenced a makeover. Jammu & Kashmir was targeted with a proxy war which then extended into rest of India. After 9/11 and the vicious rise of Islamic radicalism it was expected that Pakistan would cease this strategy and concentrate on assistance to the US, given the amount of aid that was coming its way. It did not happen.
By 2007 Pakistan was itself hit by a growing Islamic radical movement which lay bare its internal security. It then chose to follow a three track policy. The first track was to militarily defeat the internal Islamic radical movement which was questioning Pakistan’s concept of being a true Islamic republic. The battle continues to the day. The second track was a halfhearted attempt to pursue interests of the US and its allies in Afghanistan. While it opened its territory for use by the International Security Assistance Force it also expanded its own networks with the Taliban and surrogates such as the Haqqani group. It was at a continuous war of words with the US on the degree of assistance it rendered in terms of denying sanctuaries to the Taliban. For all the while the Taliban leadership remained ensconced in Quetta or Peshawar. Even Osama bin Laden’s presence, 800 meters from the Pakistan Military Academy at Kakul, and subsequent killing by a US Seal operation did not fetch any retribution for Pakistan. It only emboldened it.
The third track of Pakistan’s strategy was to target India and enhance the weight of the proxy war. No doubt the funds it received from the US came handy. In international diplomatic circles Pakistan’s diplomats spoke extensively of the high level of cooperation it was extending to the US and its allies; never once was its policy of nurturing the friendly terror groups targeting India ever questioned.
The US has been aware of this strategy followed by Pakistan but could not find a way of pressurising it or influencing it to change track. It has been aware that Pakistan is the core center of Islamic radicalism but its own perceived strategic interests prevented it from any hard acts to force Pakistan to mend its ways. Aware of the weakness of Pakistan’s civilian government and the fact that security and foreign policy is run entirely by the powerful Pakistan Army it chose, for tactical short term gains, to follow a policy of dealing directly with the Pakistan Army. This is the reason why the visits of General Raheel Sharif to Washington are usually bigger events than those of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
Stung by the ill effects of the faulty conflict termination in Iraq which led to the rise of Daesh and given the rising tide of Islamic radicalism the US is attempting a relook at its final exit policy from Afghanistan. It needs to stabilise the Ashraf Ghani regime in Kabul which, it is aware, has no great love for Pakistan. Pakistan’s continuance of proxy war against India is of lesser consequence to the US. What it wants from Pakistan is support towards stabilisation of Afghanistan a key largely in the hands of Pakistan.
In the light of the above is there any surprise that in February 2016 the Obama administration notified the US Congress of its decision to sell 8 x F-16 fighter jets to Pakistan. The estimated cost of the sale is $700 million; $250 million is the Pakistan liability and the rest is that of the US. The US Pentagon said the sale would improve Pakistan’s capability to meet current and future security threats; language garbed to say nothing. The US Congress, however, put the deal on hold by withholding approval thus effectively withdrawing the $450 million assistance that Pakistan would have received.
The virtual great game did not end there. Analysts believe that the US Congress is using this opportunity to thwart internal accusations that its actions in support of Pakistan have strengthened Pakistan’s proclivity to continue playing dubious games in Afghanistan and against India. In addition the deal may have become the bargain for continued support to Pakistan if it displayed a proven intent towards a peace process in Afghanistan.
Was this the reason that Mulla Mansoor, the Taliban Chief, who was opposed to the peace process since August 2015, was eliminated in a drone attack.? Was it Pakistan’s way of demonstrating its support to the US and thus hoping for a green signal in the supply of the 8 x F-16s? Or perhaps was the entire action of the US Congress focused on getting Pakistan to do what it is alleged to have done. The game goes on and the F-16s remain at the center of it as the bone of contention, the dangling carrot. There can be no doubt that like the 70 aircrafts before these too will shortly find their way into the PAF inventory.
What is India’s concern in this besides the fact that we are the continued targets of Pakistan’s proxy war fought with the full knowledge of the US? The fact that the Indian Air Force does have an acquisition problem and its inventory of aircraft is threatening to shortly bottom out at 31 squadrons, addition to PAF’s inventory is a threat. That isn’t the most important part. What is evident is that with the US – India Strategic Partnership on its way, it is still evident that the US places priority on its Pakistan policy rather than strengthen its future partnership for the Indo Pacific. Even as Rebalancing and Pivot to Asia become its bywords, the pull of the Af-Pak refuses to release the US from its clutches. No doubt conflict termination in Af-Pak is occupying the US mind, a place where India has equal stakes. India’s legendary patience must not allow Pakistan any strategic advantage in the games underway although some analysts tend to believe existence of an Indian lobbying effort at the bottom of the US Congress decision to put the F-16 deal on hold.
Lastly, Munir Akram, Pakistan’s ex Permanent Representative at the United Nations, in his list of reasons for the action by the US Congress lists the threat of Theater Nuclear Weapons (TNWs) by Pakistan against India’s potential use of its proactive strategy. India’s message must be clear. We do not believe in first use as per our declared nuclear doctrine but a TNW is a nuclear weapon and its use against our forces leaves the right in our hands as to the place, time and level of nuclear response. If that does not wake up the US Congress, nothing else will.
(The writer is a former GOC of the Srinagar based 15 Corps, now associated with Vivekanand International Foundation and Delhi Policy Group)