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F-16 fiasco marks a new US-Pakistan divorce

world Updated: Jun 15, 2016 09:53 IST
US

Some of Pakistan’s fleet of F-16 jets are due to be decommissioned in the next few years and the government says it needs the aircraft to fight Islamist militants in remote mountains near Afghanistan.(AFP)

Washington and Islamabad are in the midst of yet another geopolitical divorce. The US National Security Council’s South Asia man, Peter Lavoy, and the special representative for AfPak, Rick Olson, were in Islamabad last week in an attempt to salvage what is left.

The US Congress’ decision to not subsidise the sale of eight F-16 fighters was the latest nail in the coffin. Pakistan responded by saying it wouldn’t accept the batch of jets. This, in turn, follows the US drone strike that killed Mullah Akhtar Mansour, the Inter-Services-Intelligence’s favoured candidate for leadership of the Taliban, in late May.

Read: Spurned by US, Pakistan mulls buying used F-­16 jets from Jordan

The New York Times, often a good indicator of Obama administration thinking, set the tone in a May 13 editorial entitled “Time to Put the Squeeze on Pakistan”, in which it called the country “a duplicitous and dangerous partner”.

The relationship began going south when US Special Forces assassinated Osama Bin Laden in Abbottabad in 2011. Senior US officials told their Indian counterparts of their skepticism that the Pakistani military could not have known of the Al Qaeda chief’s presence – and how Rawalpindi noticeably declined to inquire how he ended up in the cantonment town.

Abbottabad soured the US Congress against Pakistan. The White House, however, continued to bat for Islamabad. It had three reasons for doing so.

One, it saw Pakistan as the indispensable partner of its grand design for a negotiated settlement between the Taliban and the Kabul regime. Two, it sought another deal over Pakistan’s tactical nuclear warheads that it saw as a burgeoning “loose nukes” threat. Finally, it felt it had a pair of reasonable interlocutors following the 2013 re-election of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and appointment of Gen Raheel Sharif as the Pakistan Army chief.

On all three counts, US policy is at a dead end.

Rawalpindi has been especially two-faced over Afghanistan. Washington has been wearying, as Christine Fair of George Washington University has written, of “Pakistan’s tactics of extracting rents from Washington while proving itself unable or unwilling to bring the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table”.

The Pakistani military has had no interest in the sort of negotiations that the US seeks – with the US troop presence down to about 10,000 troops, the generals have held to the belief Kabul would fall into their hands anyway. After the US persuaded Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to kowtow to Rawalpindi, the generals rewarded him last year with a renewed spring Taliban offensive.

The past year also saw an increase in attacks on US troops by the Haqqani Network, the Taliban affiliate closest to the ISI. The top American commander in Afghanistan told the US Congress in February, “The Haqqani Network remains the most capable threat to US and coalition forces.”

When the US took out Mansour, a drone strike that took place inside Pakistani territory and which Rawalpindi was not forewarned about, it was a sign the White House no longer expected the Pakistani military to deliver on the Taliban.

The Obama administration, over the past two years, had been trying to entice the Pakistani military to dismantle its tactical nuclear arsenal. These small, dispersed warheads were seen as prime targets for terrorist capture.

Much to India’s anger, US National Security Adviser Susan Rice had offered Pakistan a “nuclear deal” on the lines of the one given to India in 2009. At least six versions of the deal were offered, but all were rejected by the Pakistan military as it insisted on a carbon copy of what was given to India. The Obama administration found that impossible and the talks have since foundered.

As for Nawaz Sharif, it soon became clear to Obama, as it has to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, that the Pakistani premier had all the right ideas on India and Afghanistan but no authority to implement them.

Gen Sharif, though much feted by the Obama administration during his last visit to Washington in the winter of 2015, proved to be a rigid adherent to Rawalpindi’s orthodoxy regarding the Taliban, Pakistan’s A-bombs and India.

The mood in the US Congress, say Indian sources, had begun turning against Islamabad by last November as anger over Pakistan began to come to a head. This was evident when Senator Rand Paul’s resolution to ban F-16 sales to Pakistan in February, while abortive, inspired a huge burst of Pakistan-bashing by many congressmen.

When Pakistan asked the US to subsidise the F-16s, as Washington has done in the past, it immediately ran into opposition. As Michael Krepon of the Stimson Center, a Washington think tank, noted, “The only choices Congress seriously considered were to block the sale or to require payment in full.” Senator Bob Corker of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee decided to opt for the latter as a compromise.

Indian sources say Corker’s decision to drop the subsidy caught the White House by surprise but Obama’s efforts to salvage the F-16 sale failed to find traction.

With India’s equity in the US rising, Pakistan phobia rampant in the Beltway and Pakistan believing it has a geopolitical white knight in the form of China, the curtain is falling on the latest act of the poisonous Washington-Islamabad drama.