Defending F-16 deal, Blinken says ‘Pakistan faces clear terror threats’
The United States Secretary of State explained it was the US's obligation to whomever it provides military equipment to, to make sure that it’s maintained and sustained.
Washington: Two days after external affairs minister S Jaishankar said that counter-terror as an explanation to provide a F-16 package to Pakistan did not fool anyone, United States (US) Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Pakistan faced real terror threats and that the package would add to Pakistani capabilities. But he also clarified, twice, that F-16 package was a sustainment programme, not an additional one, and part of American obligations.
Blinken also encouraged dialogue and diplomacy between India and Pakistan and emphasized that this approach won’t change.
On Monday, the US had said that it does not views its ties with India and Pakistan in relation to each other, and encouraged both to have “constructive” relations with each other.
Blinken also hosted Pakistani foreign minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari for a meeting and attended a special event with him to mark 75 years of diplomatic ties on Monday. Blinken had then called the US-Pakistan relationship “resilient”, but also said that both of them had “talked about the importance of managing a responsible relationship with India”.
On Sunday, Jaishankar, at an Indian-American community event said that the US-Pakistan relationship, including the military relationship, was not a recent one, and had harmed both countries.
He said, “For someone to say I am doing it because it is for counterterrorism, when you are talking of an aircraft of the capability of a F16, everyone knows where they are deployed, what is its use, what is its capability. You are not fooling anybody by saying these things,” he said in a pointed critique of the grounds for the assistance.
The minister said, “If I were to speak to an American policymaker, I would make a case saying look, forget about us for a moment, what you are doing is not good for you. Reflect on the history, look at the many years of this relationship and where it has taken you, and the cost you have had to pay for it.”
The minister had, at the same time, hailed the deepening of the US-India defence and security ties and these components of the relationship would grow.
F-16 support as obligation; terror threats
On Tuesday, when asked about the support to Pakistan and what threats it faced at a press conference with external affairs minister S Jaishankar, Blinken said, “This is a sustainment program for F-16s that Pakistan has long had. These are not new planes, new systems, new weapons. It’s sustaining what they have. We have a responsibility and an obligation to whomever we provide military equipment to make sure that it’s maintained and sustained.”
He said that the programme bolstered Pakistan’s capability to deal with terror threats, it was in no one’s interest to see those threats persist. “And so this capability that Pakistan has had can benefit all of us in dealing with terrorism.”
When asked what terror threats Pakistan faces, Blinken said there were clear terrorism threats that emanated from Pakistan itself as well as from neighbouring countries. “And whether it is TTP that may be targeting Pakistan, whether it’s ISIS-Khorasan, whether it’s al-Qaida, I think the threats are clear, well-known, and we all have an interest in making sure that we have the means to deal with them. And that’s what this is about.”
To a question on his advice to Pakistan to manage ties with India, Blinken said that the US always encourages its friends to “resolve their differences” through diplomacy and dialogue. “That hasn’t changed. It won’t change. It would not be appropriate for me to characterise Pakistan’s response, just as I wouldn’t characterise our friend’s response in a similar conversation.”
On Monday, in response to a question on Jaishankar’s statement, State Department spokesperson Ned Price said, “These are both partners of ours with different points of emphasis in each, and we look to both as partners because we do have in many cases shared values, we do have in many cases shared interests.”
Price added that the relationship with India stood on its own, as did the relationship with Pakistan. “We also want to do everything we can to see to it that these neighbors have relations with one another that are as constructive as can be possible. And so that’s another point of emphasis.”
The fall of Kabul in August 2021 and America’s exit from Afghanistan had seen ties between the two countries dip, as criticism in the US mounted about what many saw as Pakistan’s dubious role through the years of the war with its active support to the Taliban. But since the fall of the Imran Khan government and the election of the Shehbaz Sharif government in Pakistan, there has been incremental normalisation in ties between Washington DC and Islamabad. Khan had alleged that his ouster was a result of an American conspiracy, a claim that the US rejected firmly.
The past and present in Afghanistan
When asked how the US saw Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan and support to Taliban during the 20-year US presence in the country, and whether the State department had reviewed that aspect of ties, Price said that it would be hard for him to summarise ties over that long a period.
“I suppose what I would say broadly, of course, is that Pakistan was not a monolith during that time. We saw different governments, and we saw with the passage of years different approaches to the Taliban and to Afghanistan at the time.”
He then pointed to the fact that there was a new government in Pakistan now, post the fall of Kabul, and the reason they were meeting was because both countries had shared security interests. “It is neither in our interests nor in Pakistan’s interest to see instability, to see violence in Afghanistan.” The US, he added, had also been “intensely focused” on the devastating following the torrential floods in Pakistan.
After the Secretary of State met the Pakistani foreign minister, the State Department said in a statement that Blinken had expressed his sorrow at the floods and reaffirmed the US commitment to the people of Pakistan, “noting the nearly $56.5 million in flood relief and humanitarian assistance provided this year as well as the additional $10 million of food security assistance announced today”. “The Secretary and the Foreign Minister also discussed partnering on food security, economic prosperity, regional stability, and Afghanistan.”
At a separate event, Blinken spoke about the floods and American support, adding, “We will continue to stand by Pakistan, to stand by its people, today and in the days to come, because that’s what we’ve done for each other in both directions through much of our shared history.”
Blinken said the two countries continued to work on counterterrorism issues. “We have a shared stake in Afghanistan’s future after two decades of war. We have had our differences; that’s no secret. But we share a common objective: a more stable, a more peaceful, and free future for all of Afghanistan and for those across the broader region. “
He added that in the discussions, they had also talked “about the importance of managing a responsible relationship with India”. “And I also urged our colleagues to engage China on some of the important issues of debt relief and restructure so that Pakistan can more quickly recover from the floods.”
The rationale of re-engagement
Commenting on the renewed high-level US Pakistan engagement, Asfandyar Mir, senior expert at USIP, said that Blinken appeared to want a working relationship with Pakistan.
“To that extent, the recent engagements between Pakistan and the US mark a reset, in particular after a tumultuous period in bilateral ties spanning the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul in August 2021 to Imran Khan’s conspiracy theory that the administration engineered his removal.”
He said that the administration had a “strong memory of the past”, which will continue to color the relationship. “But it also seems to want to be forward looking and bank a modicum of goodwill which will give it influence on key issues like counterterrorism, Afghanistan, potential India-Pakistan tensions, and Pakistan’s alignment with China. There also appears to be feeling that a less adversarial, more functional relationship with Pakistan on balance is better for Indo-Pacific priorities.”
But Mir warned that one shouldn’t “overstate the trajectory” of US-Pakistan ties. The current engagement marked only a “moderate improvement” and there remained a ceiling on the relationship.