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Why India has lashed out at the US over its F-16 package to Pakistan

Why has the Biden Administration reversed Trump's freeze on military ties with Islamabad with a $450 million package for a lifetime upgrade of Pakistan's F-16 fleet? What is the deal, and why is Delhi unhappy?

External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar has lashed out at the US for its F-16 package to Pakistan.

Speaking at a meeting with the non-resident Indian community in Washington on Sunday, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar lashed out at the US for its decision to provide Pakistan with a $450 million package for what the Pentagon has called the “F-16 case for sustainment and related equipment”. Jaishankar questioned the merits of the US-Pakistan partnership, saying it had “not served” either country. When asked about the US justification that the fighter planes were meant to assist Pakistan in its counter-terrorism efforts, Jaishankar retorted: “You’re not fooling anybody by saying these things”.

This was the first time India had expressed publicly its frustration at the Biden Administration’s move. Last week, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh said on Twitter that he had “conveyed concerns” to his American counterpart Lloyd Austin.

The Ministry of External Affairs had been quiet thus far, though Ministry officials said they communicated India’s objections to US officials who were in New Delhi for the 2+2 Inter-sessional and Maritime Security Dialogues, and for a Quad Senior Officials Meeting at the time of the announcement on September 7.

This is the first American military assistance package to Pakistan after the Trump Administration ended defence and security co-operation with the country in 2018 after accusing it of giving only “lies and deceit” for the billions of dollars that the US had “foolishly” given it.

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How has the US responded to Jaishankar’s remarks?

“We don’t view our relationship with Pakistan, and … our relationship with India as in relation to one another. These are both partners of ours with different points of emphasis in each. We look at both as partners, because we do have in many cases shared values. We do have in many cases shared interests. And the relationship we have with India stands on its own. The relationship we have with Pakistan stands on its own”, White House spokesman Ned Price said, when asked about Jaishankar’s remarks.

All said and done, Pakistan remains a non-NATO ally of the US. As Delhi demonstrates “strategic autonomy” to engage with every side — Quad one week, and Russia and China the next at the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO) in Samarkand — and work around Western sanctions to buy oil from Russia, and keep friends in all camps, it may have to come to terms that others in world play the same game.

What is the US’ F-16 package to Pakistan?

According to the September 7 Defense Security Co-operation Agency press release, included in the $450 million package — the proposed contractor for which is Lockheed Martin — are technical and logistics services for follow-on support of Pakistan’s F-16 fleet. There is participation in several technical coordination groups, aircraft and engine hardware and software modifications and support, equipment support, manuals, precision measurement, and a range of related elements of aircraft maintenance.

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In effect, this means a life-time upgrade for Pakistan’s existing fleet of F-16s.

What specific reasons has the Biden Administration given for its decision?

“The proposed sale does not include any new capabilities, weapons, or munitions,” the release stated. “[It]…will support the foreign policy and national security objectives of the United States by allowing Pakistan to retain interoperability with US and partner forces in ongoing counter-terrorism efforts and in preparation for future contingency operations”.. Also, “the proposed sale of this equipment and support will not alter the basic military balance in the region”.

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But as pointed out by Jaishankar, how the F-16s help in counter-terrorism remains unclear. In any case, much of the heavy lifting in this department was carried out by the US by means of armed, unmanned drones.

Among the speculated reasons for the Biden Administration’s reversal of Trump’s policy on Pakistan, one revolves around the killing of Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul. Questions have swirled, including in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as to who provided the intelligence for the drone strike that killed the al-Qaeda chief in a posh house that belonged to Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani.

Last year, former Prime Minister Imran Khan had categorically denied American assertions that it was negotiating air space rights for security-/counter-terrorism-related operations in Afghanistan.

How much of a role did the change of government in Pakistan play?

Imran’s allegations of a US hand in his ouster did not prevent the Shehbaz Sharif government from repairing ties with the Biden Administration. Both Army chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa and ISI head Lt Gen Nadeem Anjum have been in active touch with their US interlocutors. Anjum visited the US in May, and Bajwa reportedly asked for help secure an IMF package for Pakistan, which has been granted.

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Imran’s recent comments in an interview to a Pakistani TV channel that he is, in fact, not anti-US, and that he has been in touch with various US officials, suggest that the new turn in US-Pakistan relations was inevitable. All players — Pakistan’s military, its ruling and opposition politicians, and the US — know they need one another, and that the rest is rhetoric.

All this time, the Biden Administration has been conveying its own concerns to India on Delhi’s “lukewarm” attitude to the sanctions against Russia, and its “neutrality” in the war. The gesture to Pakistan could have been intended to convey that disapproval in concrete terms.

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Some observers believe there could be yet another reason: in the geopolitical churn arising from the Russia-Ukraine war, the US is trying to break China’s hold on Pakistan with sweeteners of its own. The Pakistan Air Force now has more Chinese JF-17 Thunder fighter jets than F-16s — but it continues to rely on the ageing American aircraft, as the India-Pakistan 2019 skirmish demonstrated. The JF-17s are now manufactured at the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex in Kamra jointly with China’s Chengdu Aircraft Corporation, and its Klimov engines are Russian-built. Significantly, on March 23, Pakistan’s National Day, PAF chief Zaheer Ahmad Babar Sidhu led the flypast in an F-16.

How does it impact India-Pakistan relations?

India has been concerned about the F-16s from the time the US first gave Pakistan F-16s as a reward for its assistance in the first Afghan war, in which the US supplied weapons and money to Pakistan to unleash armies of jihadis against the Soviet Army. When the US objective was achieved with the Soviet Union’s departure from Afghanistan, the US too resized its relations with Pakistan. The Pressler Amendment, aimed against Pakistan’s nuclear ambitions, froze it out of of military assistance. A decade later, the Bush Administration not only approved the release of previously blocked F-16s, but also provided a refurbishment package, and sale of new F-16s.

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According to Brig. Rahul Bhonsle (retd), who runs the online portal Security Risks Asia, the sustainment programme for Pakistan’s F-16 fleet would enhance conventional deterrence versus India. He says that the last aerial skirmish between Pakistan and India on February 29, 2019 — during which the PAF brought down a MiG-21 flown by IAF pilot Abhinandan Varthaman — showed that the F-16 is the aircraft that Pakistan will use in any future encounter with India.

“India will have to effectively enhance conventional combat capability of the IAF to continue to meet the challenge of a resurgent PAF,” he says in an article on his site.

In August 2019, several months after that encounter, the State Department wrote to the Pakistan Air force chief pointing out that the F16s had been moved to “unauthorised” forward operating bases in defiance of an agreement with the US. The letter, quoted by a US media organisation, said that such actions by Pakistan risked allowing these weapons to fall in the hands of “malign actors” and “could undermine our shared security platforms and infrastructures.” The letter did not explicitly mention the February 29 incident.

According to an Indian source, under its agreement with the US, Pakistan must station the F-16s at the Jacobabad air base in Sindh, and the Americans were upset at evidence that they had been shifted from there. Three years later, that does not appear to matter any more.

In fact, while he was responding to Jaishankar’s remarks, the White House spokesman appeared to delink entirely the F-16s from India-Pakistan peace prospects, as if one had no bearing on the other.

“We also want to do everything we can to see to it that these neighbours have relations with one another that are as constructive as can be possible, so that’s another point of emphasis,” he said.

First published on: 27-09-2022 at 11:05:58 am
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