United States-Pakistan Strategic Dialogue

Earlier in this series

US-Pakistan: The Hijab of Expectations


On Monday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Pakistan’s Advisor on Foreign Affairs, Sartaj Aziz, will meet in Washington D.C. for the sixth annual United States-Pakistan Strategic Dialogue. Among other topics, discussion on the sale of eight nuclear-capable F-16 fighter jets to Pakistan is likely to be high on the agenda. Is this sale indeed about boosting counter-terrorism capabilities? What does it tell us about the brass-tacks of the United States-Pakistan bilateral relationship?

Numerous Objections, Various Reasons

Two weeks ago, the Obama administration formally announced to Congress its intention to sell the fighter jets to Pakistan. Congress has 30 days to either allow or reject the decision – which the U.S. president can choose to veto.

Objections to the sale from different quarters of Congress have highlighted various dimensions. Some objections to the sale cite Pakistan’s irresponsible geopolitical behavior as well as its consistent failure to deal with terrorist groups based inside its territory.Some are against allowing Pakistan to fund the purchase from the military assistance it receives via the United States Foreign Military Fund (FMF) . Some have also reasoned that since the United States’ tactic of incentivizing Pakistan has not delivered much return, providing additional inducement does not seem useful.

Meanwhile, India has expressed its disappointment over the sale in different ways. A day after Congress was notified, Indian Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar summoned U.S. Ambassador to India, Richard Varma, and let New Delhi’s displeasure over the decision be known. Indian defense minister Manohar Parrikar reportedly said he was “hurt” by the decision. Vikas Swarup, spokesperson for India’s foreign ministry, termed the decision “very unfortunate.” However, signalling a nuanced approach, he added that “[the sale] will certainly convey a negative sentiment. But, as I said, we do not have a single point agenda with the US.”

Given the history, India feels these fighter jets will not be of any value towards countering terrorists inside Pakistan, but that these jets could be used against India. This is evident in the following statement by the foreign ministry: “We disagree with their rationale that such arms transfers help to combat terrorism. The record of the last many years in this regard speaks for itself.” India’s reaction is neither new nor entirely unfounded. Due to Pakistan’s track record with military aid, and steady forward movement in India-United States ties over the past decade, any military sale by Washington to Islamabad draws New Delhi’s attention. The timing is especially sensitive since India was seeking to ensure that Pakistan takes action against the perpetrators of the January 2016 attack in Pathankot. Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook, however, stated that F-16s are “important capabilities for the Pakistanis to go after terrorists,” and added that “we don’t think it should cause concern for India.”

Of Fighter Jets and Fixations

Some experts have questioned the very rationale and efficacy of using F-16s for ground strikes against terrorists, stating that F-16s are essentially used against modern air forces. Unlike the Obama administration’s rationale for the recent nod, the sale of F-16s has never historically been about counter-terrorism. Since the first transfer in the early 1980s, Islamabad has attributed an inexplicable symbolic value to F-16 jets—almost to the extent of obsession—and has also consistently tied the issue to its wider bilateral relationship with Washington. The value India places on the sale of F-16s may also seem out of proportion, given how it is not particularly seeking to purchase these jets at the moment. However, due to the overblown symbolic importance Islamabad attaches to the purchase of F-16s among other military sales, New Delhi considers it an important criterion to assess the United States-Pakistan relationship. By this logic, India’s valuation does not seem abnormal, and accordingly, has a bearing on its assessment of its own relations with the United States.

What Next?

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif are scheduled to attend the March 2016 Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) in Washington. Reportedly, both men might meet on the side lines of the summit. Naturally, the upcoming dialogue, which is scheduled exactly a month prior to the NSS, will not go unexploited.

Nevertheless, a quick reading of the past three decades will tell us that the recent U.S. decision to sell F-16s to Pakistan falls smack dab within the central nature of the Washington-Islamabad relationship—purely transactional at its core, irrespective of the outer dressing. The United States again wants Pakistan (which is seemingly moving into China’s sphere of influence) to deliver on some key matters such as the Afghan issue, and the latter is adept at turning its calamities into opportunities. Moreover, while the Pakistan-United States relationship tends to be more disproportionate and has differing goals, the India-United States relationship is not really so. Though the Washington-Islamabad and Washington-New Delhi bilaterals each have a bearing on the other, the United States does not apply the same parameters to evaluate both relationships.

If this estimation is correct, it may be practical for New Delhi to worry less, at least about the state of India-United States ties, while simultaneously refocusing efforts towards keeping itself better prepared to deal with any security-related eventuality.

Views expressed are the author’s own, and do not necessarily reflect those of the organizations she is affiliated with. 


Image: Ethan Miller-Getty Images News, Getty

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