Sunday, May 15, 2016

US, Pakistan gyrate to the F-16 deal with eye on India

Pakistan’s Advisor on Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz achieved a rare feat on Thursday when in three crisp sentences he summed up the complicated relationship between his country and the United States.

Aziz was replying to a discussion in the upper house of Pakistan’s National Assembly in Islamabad on the “downward slide” in the relationship lately. Aziz said,

  • Our relations with the United States constitute an important element of our foreign, defense and economic policies. This seven-decade of relationship, while robust and wide ranging, is characterized with occasional vicissitudes. Despite its inherent challenges, both sides have managed to keep a pragmatic, working relationship over the course of years.

Aziz was unemotional, and would not give centrality to the ties with the US. He never once described the relationship with the US to be ‘strategic’. In sum, F-16 aircraft meet a critical need, and Pakistan is negotiating hard, but won’t go down on its knees.

Yet, US-Pakistan ties remain “robust and wide ranging” and have withstood ups and downs. There are inherent challenges, but Islamabad and Washington have managed to keep it going as a “pragmatic working relationship”.

Aziz did not claim this was a “vital relationship” or that the two countries have “shared threats and concerns, shared interest in the region” – expressions used by the US state department spokesman while viewing the panorama from Washington last week.

He took strong exception to the recent moves by the US Congress to stop the Obama administration from using foreign military financing to subsidize to the tune of US$429 million to finance the sale of eight F-16 aircraft to Pakistan, and, secondly, to block $450 million of military aid to Pakistan for failing to take action against the Haqqani Network in Afghanistan.

Aziz made a subtle distinction between the US Congress and the Administration and put the finger on the Indian lobbying on the Hill, but he also reminded the Obama administration that it recently had concluded “wide ranging defense deals” with India, which impact the strategic stability in South Asia.

A complex diplomatic pirouette is playing out. The US Congress pretends to act independently and the Administration pleads helplessness. But the Administration also robustly promotes military cooperation with India on a parallel track.

In the Pakistani eyes, the US’ ‘tilt’ toward India has never before been so pronounced. If Islamabad suspects that the Obama administration is playing a double game, Aziz sidestepped it, except to say,

  • Even though U.S. State department has been consistently underlining the importance of good relations with Pakistan, there are broader geo-political issues which must be kept in view.

Pakistan closely monitors the burgeoning strategic partnership between the US and India. The US is fueling the Sinophobia in the Indian mind by alleging that China and Pakistan are cooperating to block India’s membership of the Nuclear Supply Group and other technology control regimes and that China is undertaking a military build-up on the border with India.

President Barack Obama has invited Prime Minister Narendra Modi to pay a state visit to the US in June. On the whole, Washington is making a determined pitch to get India on board its rebalance in Asia while India shows reluctance.

Again, the US has prioritized India for its arms exports while India still relies on Russia as its number one partner in the defense field, the New Cold War between Washington and Moscow notwithstanding.

Clearly, a highly complicated geopolitical maneuvering is going on in regard of influencing the Indian policies, with Russia lately stepping in to lend a hand to harmonize the Chinese and Indian viewpoints on the South China Sea disputes.

In the circumstances, Washington cannot but be receptive to Indian sensitivities over the transfer of F-16 aircraft to Pakistan, especially at the present juncture when tensions between India and Pakistan are running high.

Indeed, speaking to the media a few days back, Aziz explicitly warned that Pakistan will be forced to exercise the option of procuring fighter aircraft from China to meet its defense needs if the F-16 deal is not coming through. Aziz was flagging that Pakistan also has policy options.

The Quadrilateral Coordination Group on Afghanistan (comprising Afghanistan, Pakistan, US and China) is due to hold its next meeting in Islamabad on May 18-19. The US-Pakistan defense coordination group meets in Washington immediately thereafter on May 30 where the F-16 deal figures in the agenda. The sequencing of the two events is meaningful.

Fundamentally, Pakistan estimates that the Afghan situation is working to its advantage. Its attitude toward the Kabul government has hardened. Last week, Pakistan closed the Torkham border briefly for four days and in no time thousands of trucks piled up at the border, including convoys carrying supplies for NATO forces in Afghanistan.

It was an act of muscle flexing as well as a message to Washington. The testy stand-off ended only after the Afghan ambassador called on the army chief in Rawalpindi to request the reopening of the border.

Pakistan drove home the point once again that its role in the stabilization of the Afghan situation is central and irreplaceable. The big question is what President Obama’s calculus is like against this backdrop.

Coincidence or not, Taliban have gone on sabbatical after the dramatic attack on Kabul a few weeks ago. Possibly, Pakistan restrained them. Or, possibly, the Talibs are busy with the harvesting of poppy.

Either way, the bottom line is that the Taliban’s ‘spring offensive’ is in a state of animated suspension. Obama’s priority will be to prevent an upsurge in the violence in Afghanistan when the US presidential race is on.

Therefore, Pakistan’s cooperation becomes vital. But then, there is give-and-take inevitably in a “working relationship”. The Obama administration has to find a way to transfer the eight F-16s to Pakistan. Most likely, it will happen once Modi’s visit to the US is out of the way.

Ambassador MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001)


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