Washington’s dubious dice game
reflects on America’s inconsistent and arguably imprudent policies vis-à-vis Pakistan, and how they risk unravelling crucial US-India ties Yvonne Gill
New Delhi is seriously alarmed by the flip-flop diplomacy being practised by the Biden administration in relation to Pakistan – a country on the verge of economic collapse and a hotbed of jihadi terror groups that poses a serious threat to the peace and stability of the region.
The new regime of Shehbaz Sharif has been on its knees, begging for economic aid from the West to help it stave off a debt crisis. A large part of its massive debt includes money borrowed from the Chinese and sunk into ill-conceived projects such as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), not to speak of its ever-growing Chinese defence purchases. The West, more specifically the US, appears to be rather generous in obliging the thoroughly corrupt rulers of Pakistan. They are not exactly offering economic aid, but spares and upgrades for Pakistan’s ageing F-16s, bought way back in the 1980s.
Pakistan’s leadership is an unholy military-civil alliance in which it is generally the military calling the shots, while the politicians and civilian bureaucracy feed on carcasses of widespread corruption, even as the judiciary pitches in to claim its share of the loot. The people, who finally bear the burden of foreign and domestic debt, are left high and dry. Today Pakistan presents a grim picture of destruction wrought by the recent catastrophic floods, driving the homeless millions towards starvation.
At a time when getting immediate relief to the suffering people should be a priority and yet only a trickle is pouring in, the US Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) has informed Congress of its decision to permit the sale of the F-16 sustainment and associated equipment to Pakistan for an estimated price of US$450 million. In other words, the country’s F-16s are to be refurbished, upgraded with new sensors, etc. (Notably, the US had suspended support for the Pakistani F-16 fleet support in 2018.) The DSCA maintains that the sustainment of the F-16 will not change the regional military balance and does not involve any new capabilities, weaponsor munitions. Rather, it argues, the program will help Pakistan in its campaign against terrorism.Yet it is difficult to understand how these F-16s fighter-bombers might help Pakistan fight its home-bred terrorists, a major source of terrorism in India.
One of the few times the F-16 has been used in actual operations was their use against India, following strikes by the Indian Air Force on terrorist training camps in Balakot, Pakistan in 2019. Pakistan’s frontline attack aircraft consists of the F-16s, Chinese J-10Cs and J-17s. The Pakistanis can easily bomb their terrorist camps using any of their vantage jets like the Mirage 5s. The F-16s are primarily meant to be used against India.
India has raised ‘serious objections’ against the US’s F-16 ‘sustainment’ package. The country’s External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar, who visited the US in September, pointed out that America’s relationship with Pakistan has ‘not served’ either country. Defence Minister Rajnath Singh had also conveyed to US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin India’s concerns over Washington’s decision to provide the sustainment package for Pakistan’s F-16 fleet.
Even as the deal was being pushed in the Senate by his administration, President Biden, speaking at a Democratic party event ahead of the November mid-term elections, described Pakistan as ‘one of the most dangerous nations in the world’.Xi Jinping, he said, ‘is a guy who understands what he wants but has an enormous, enormous array of problems. How do we handle that? How do we handle that relative to what’s going on in Russia? And what I think is maybe is one of the most dangerous nations in the world: Pakistan. Nuclear weapons without cohesion.’
Biden’s intriguing stance surprised the world, and sent the powers that be in Pakistan scrambling for cover. The Shehbaz government hasdesperately been trying to build bridges with the US of late. Even army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa (who is likely to retire at the end of November) personally visited Washington in September, apparently to patch up US-Pakistan relations, which were at their lowest ebb during Imran Khan’s rule. Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari has also made at least two visits to the US since assuming office in April this year. Bilawal dismissed Biden’s ‘nuclear weapons without cohesion’ remark, saying it was made at a private event and did not reflect official policy.
Although there is ample evidence of Pakistan being responsible for nuclear proliferation, and a lack of proper safeguards to ensure safety of its nuclear assets, Washington came out with anomnibus statement, giving a clear message to Pakistan: ‘The US has always viewed a secure and prosperous Pakistan as critical to US interests. More broadly, the US values our long-standing cooperation with Pakistan. We enjoy a strong partnership,’ US State Department spokesperson Vedant Patel told journalists in Washington shortly after a meeting between Pakistan’s Ambassador Masood Khan and Counsellor Derek Chollet.‘The United States is confident of Pakistan’s commitment and its ability to secure nuclear assets,’he underlined.
Another issue irking New Delhi is the visit by US ambassador to Pakistan Donald Blome to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) in October. It was not the visit to the disputed region, but a series of tweets by the US embassy in Islamabad, highlighting the three-day trip to what was referred to as Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK),that raised questions.Was it deliberate on the ambassador’s part to refer to PoK as AJK?
Is the US trying to woo Pakistan, its cold war non-NATO ally, at the cost of angering India, which is a powerful US ally in the Indo-Pacific? Is the F-16 upgrade deal a reward for Pakistan allowing the use of its airspace to facilitate the US drone attack that killed al-Qaeda chief Ayman Al Zawahiri in Kabul in August?
Pakistan is only too eager to repair its relations with the US, which soured during former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s regime due to Khan’s anti-American rhetoric. Even now,Khan blames America for carrying out regime change in Pakistan. Some experts believe the US’s apparently inconsistent policy of patting the Pakistanis on the back could be a signal to New Delhinot to pursue an independent stand with regard to the Ukraine war. India has refused to fall in line with the US, unlike the EU countries, which are facing the backlash of numerous sanctions unilaterally slapped on Russia.
At the very least, current US policies could be described as short-sighted and ad hoc. India and the US enjoy a very strong economic and security relationship. The US National Security Strategy (NSS) paper released recently assigns a central role for India in the US bid to tame China in the Indo-Pacific. The paper describes China as the most ‘consequential threat’ and calls for engagement with India to contain a belligerent China.
‘As India is the world’s largest democracy and a Major Defense Partner, the United States and India will work together, bilaterally and multilaterally, to support our shared vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific,’ it says.
The paper does not mention Pakistan. This raises a key question: is the Biden administration playing a dubious dice game in the region?
Yvonne Gill is a freelance journalist based in London