On February 12, the US announced it will go ahead with the sale of eight F16 fighter jets to Pakistan. The $699-million deal also includes radar and electronic warfare equipment.
“This proposed sale contributes to US foreign policy objectives and national security goals by helping to improve the security of a strategic partner in South Asia,” said a news release by Pentagon’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency. It “improves Pakistan’s capability to meet current and future security threats. These additional F16 aircraft will facilitate operations in all weather, non-daylight environments, provide a self-defense/area suppression capability, and enhance Pakistan’s ability to conduct counter-insurgency and counterterrorism operations.”
India reacted sharply to the notification, summoning the US envoy in New Delhi to express its “disappointment” the very next day. “We disagree with their rationale that such arms transfers help to combat terrorism,” New Delhi said in a statement.
What does Pakistan need these F16s for? And why is the Obama administration ready ignore protests by India, which the US president had so far been calling a natural ally? Does it really reflect a new sense of justice towards Pakistan by a hitherto-skeptical United States? And what did India really want to achieve by publicly sharing its displeasure?
Officials in Islamabad hailed the deal as a welcome step. The fighter planes manufactured by Lockheed Martin will certainly reinforce Pakistan’s precision strike capability in the mountainous border region with Afghanistan, defense experts and diplomats say, against the Pakistani Taliban and their splinter groups in South Waziristan, especially in the Shawal region, and Haji Mangal Bagh’s Lashkar-e-Islam in Khyber Agency’s Tirah valley.
“This sale will increase the number of aircraft available to the Pakistan Air Force to sustain operations, meet monthly training requirements, and support transition training for pilots new to the Block-52,” the DSCA press release said. “Pakistan will have no difficulty absorbing these additional aircraft into its air force.”
The announcement comes ahead of the sixth session of the US-Pakistan Strategic Dialogue, set for February 29 in Washington. According to Ambassador Jalil Abbas Jilani, the cooperation “is driven by the common objective of peace, security and stability in the region”. In a statement, he said the meeting “is taking place against the backdrop of significant developments in Pakistan and the region”. The ambassador spoke of an “upward trajectory” in the Pakistan-US relationship, with anti-terror cooperation at the core of it.
Nuclear proliferation and the possible access to nuclear tools by non-state actors will most likely be an unavoidable subject of discussion. But on the whole, the vibes are positive.
The US administration is keen to inject a new confidence into its checkered ties with Pakistan. And that is probably why it brushed aside India’s disappointment. Ties between Washington and New Delhi cannot and should not progress at the cost of ties with Islamabad, India was told. We are dealing with two sovereign countries, they reportedly said to calm down the Indian anxiety.
That statement augurs well for Pakistan. But the “regional developments” that Ambassador Jilani spoke about clearly relate to Afghanistan, and a strong US desire to kick-start the intricate reconciliation process for which the stakeholders are likely to announce the roadmap on February 23 in Kabul.
The sweet talk is part of an entire narrative, largely prepared by the US security establishment, and resonated by the outgoing US commander General John Campbell on a number of occasions recently. He has played a significant role in positively projecting Pakistan’s counterterror efforts, such as the Operation Zarb-e-Azb, and the facilitation it has lent for the Afghan peace process. This way, Campbell can be credited for improving Pakistan’s image in DC.
On a number of occasions, including a February 4 testimony before the US Senate Armed Services Committee, Campbell told skeptical lawmakers that “Pakistan’s military no longer discriminates between ‘good and bad’ Taliban”, and “has undertaken aggressive operations against terrorists operating in its tribal border regions.”
“Senior Pakistani military officers have repeatedly declared that they can no longer discriminate between ‘good and bad’ terrorists,” he told in a written testimony. “They appear to be taking meaningful actions to back up their words.”
Campbell also acknowledged the criticality of Islamabad in efforts to broker peace in Afghanistan. “The role of Pakistan remains integral to stability in Afghanistan,” he said in his statement.
The head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Lt Gen Vincent R Stewart, also spoke positively about Pakistan’s counterterrorism actions in his February 9 testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“Counter-insurgency operations along Pakistan’s western border and paramilitary operations in Karachi have had successes in reducing violence and are likely to continue,” he said.
Such acknowledgements are good for bilateral relations, but also result in high expectations. Washington expects Islamabad to act as the real facilitator in Afghanistan, since it believes Pakistan wields considerable leverage with most Taliban leaders.
There is hope that the renewed vigor in mutual ties will incentivize Pakistan to review its strategic calculus for a better future for everyone. It could even become a precursor to improvement in India-Pakistan ties, which would be a game-changer as far as the Afghan peace process is concerned.
Critics believe that the triangular proxy battles between India, Pakistan and Afghanistan result in huge opportunity costs for all the three countries, more for Pakistan than for India. Every single day being lost to the Islamabad-Delhi logjam is adding to the cumulative financial cost and depriving the country of precious opportunities and resources needed for economic development.
India plans to spend an estimated $150 billion on modern weaponry of all kinds in the next ten years. According to the DCSA, “the proposed sale of this equipment and support will not alter the basic military balance in the region.”
There has been a perceivable change in Pakistan’s national narrative, but the world community is still skeptical as to whether it has translated into considerable change in the strategic calculus.
The writer heads the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad and is author of Pakistan: Pivot of Hizbut Tahrir’s Global Caliphate
This article first appeared at The Friday Times. Click here to go to the original.