The Obama administration is stubbornly going ahead with the sale of eight F-16s to Pakistan and has notified the US Congress under its Arms Export Control Act. It has done so disregarding India’s strong protestations and even opposition from some US legislators. Secretary of State John Kerry is leading the pack attempting to silence critics, stating that it’s “critical” for Pakistan to counter terrorists.
In New Delhi, US Ambassador Richard Verma made a spirited defence of the sale, calling it a “legacy announcement”. The most gracious view is of an ambassadorial effort to obfuscate and cloud what the sale forebodes. It was at best an attempt to explain the sale away as an old decision. The ambassador’s statement would have been more credulous if he had instead admitted the sale was part of the continuing US legacy of arming Pakistan. But he hastened to add it would exercise restraint on future supplies. Never mind that US arms supplies to Pakistan gained in strength under the Obama administration, with the Kerry-Lugar Act serving as the umbrella legislation.
To many US watchers, the intermittent announcements of arms supplies to Pakistan should have come as no surprise. Yet, the timing was startling, as it came only weeks after the terrorist attack at Pathankot. This alone should have dissuaded the Obama administration to, at least, defer the announcement of the sale.
First, the US hasn’t set store by India’s objections that Pakistan’s singular objective is to strengthen itself against India, a reality its own officials concede. As Michèle Flournoy, then US under secretary of defence for policy, testified before the House armed services committee in 2009, Pakistan has “focused most of [its] equipment acquisition on [its] deterrent capacity vis-à-vis other neighbours, particularly India” and not on “counter-emergency.”
Second, the US hasn’t hesitated to supply Pakistan with weapons and platforms that have no nexus with the fight against terror. These include the Perry-class Missile Frigate USS McInerney, P-3C Orion maritime aircraft, AMRAAM air-to-air missiles, Harpoon anti-ship missiles, Sidewinder air-to-air missiles and 32 (excluding the new eight) F-16s, more suited to wage war with India. The proposed sale will take Pakistan’s fleet to 84 of these aircraft, far exceeding any requirement to fight terror. This leaves no doubt that America’s professions don’t square with its actions.
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Third, US arms supplies to Pakistan can only embolden its army and help preserve its stranglehold on the elected government.
Fourth, and most importantly, the US has become India’s largest defence supplier. While it gives India access to sophisticated arms, there’s a hidden danger. It’s doubtful India would be able to use its US-origin wares against Pakistan without Washington’s consent. Going by past experience, it would be surprising if it doesn’t impose an embargo on India in a war with Pakistan. Critical spares and ammunition would stifle India’s war-waging capability. If, in its “pivot to Asia” and its fight against terror, Washington considers India’s role important, Delhi should demand an assurance it will do nothing to strengthen the armed forces of a nation whose declared objective is to strengthen itself against India and is a sponsor of terror. It should put Washington on notice that it cannot supply weapons to Pakistan with little relevance to combating terror.
No US president, with the exception of Jimmy Carter, has seriously resisted the Pentagon’s traditional tilt towards Pakistan. He didn’t even yield after Zia-ul-Haq rejected the US aid offer of US $400 million as “peanuts” and warned Washington that Islamabad’s cooperation could only be bought at a higher price. Islamabad’s disappointment was short-lived. With the election of Ronald Reagan, Carter’s policies were reversed. Pakistan became the third country outside Nato to be supplied F-16s. The US even turned a blind eye to Pakistan’s nuclear quest. Reagan certified to the US Congress that Islamabad didn’t “possess a nuclear explosive device”.
The unfortunate reality is that Pakistan has been the linchpin of US security strategy in South Asia. Two and a half decades after the Cold War, American mollycoddling of Pakistan continues. Evidently, Washington has been seldom persuaded by the tension its arms supplies to Pakistan engender and the impact on its “strategic ally” India. The latest sale of F-16s is portentous for Delhi. Washington calling India and the US “natural partners” shouldn’t lull Delhi into complacency.