Days after US Senate Foreign Relations chairman Bob Corker wrote to John Kerry saying he couldn’t allow taxpayers’ money to fund the sale of F-16 fighter jets to Pakistan, the Obama administration has notified a deal involving of eight such fighter aircraft.
Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper has reported that a state department spokesman, Mark Toner, said at a news briefing that US weapon sales to Pakistan contributed to the fight against terrorism and furthered America’s foreign policy interests.
India, on its part, issued a strongly worded statement disagreeing with the US stand that the sale would contribute to fight terrorism and instead argued that it would be used against India. The US envoy to India will be called to foreign office and the government’s displeasure would be shared.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi will get an opportunity to share his concerns once again when he travels to the US next month for Nuclear Interest Group meeting.
In the coming hours and days Indian TV channels and anchors will go hoarse complaining about the US decision and demand that President Barack Obama take back the notification. Some will argue that US cannot be trusted and that it plays a double game. Others might question Modi government’s tilt towards the US saying the Obama administration is not sensitive to India’s security concerns.
But, India’s protest is not going to impact the Obama Administration’s decision. Washington does not see Pakistan through India’s prism and make its strategic decisions based on bonhomie shared with New Delhi.
Before we look at the geopolitical reality that has dictated this move it would be pertinent to note that Russia has warmed up to Pakistan. In January a Russian delegation was in Islamabad where discussions on military sales took place. Moscow has been unhappy with New Delhi’s tilt towards Washington and has, in the last couple of years, offered to sell military equipment to Pakistan.
In November 2014, Pakistan and Russia had signed a bilateral defence cooperation agreement that was followed by another ‘technical cooperation agreement’. Last year, Russia signed a deal for the sale of four Mi-35 attack helicopters to Pakistan.
The defence deal marked a major shift in Russian policy towards Islamabad. In this background he US government has decided to sell jets.
Like it or not, Pakistan is central to the future of Afghanistan and US recognises that. In recent weeks the Quadrilateral Talks between Afghanistan, Pakistan, US and China have started with those involved agreeing to a broad outline within which talks would take place with Taliban. In recent months Taliban fighters have made tremendous advance in different districts of the country and the Afghan security forces have lacked both capability and capacity to challenge them. In Kunduz province 500 Taliban fighters took on a few thousand Afghan army soldiers and after holding on to the city centre for some time they have been pushed to the outskirts of the city. They continue to control the area outside and Afghan government knows that they would be challenged again the coming weeks. In Helmand province US troops are being dispatched as Afghan security forces have failed to neutralise the committed Taliban fighters.
A major spring offensive is expected from Taliban once snows melt. Washington needs Pakistan’s support to influence Taliban factions to join talks for peace. While it is widely believed that Pakistan’s army and ISI have ample leverage with Taliban the generals have informed the Americans that they have limited influence and their role should not be taken for granted.
Whatever the fact may be, Pakistan cannot be ignored. That is a given around which any discussion or debate on military sales to Islamabad can be conducted. India’s stand notwithstanding, the US believes that Pakistan has been a victim of terrorism and backs army offensive in the tribal areas. General Raheel Sharif and US Army chief have telechats daily to discuss the security situation.
Another reality that stares at South Asia is that the US will soon be consumed by presidential elections. With Iowa and New Hampshire primaries behind us the entire US administration will get into election mode come May. President Obama would soon become a lame duck president and but for important foreign policy decisions no other decision would be taken until a new occupant of White House takes charge in January 2017.
The Obama administration has been under pressure for announcing a withdrawal of combat troops from Afghanistan without a correct assessment of the ground situation and the political reality of a weak government in Kabul. Pakistan’s geographical and demographic proximity to Afghanistan cannot be ignored any less than its political influence on that country.
Washington uses a carrot and stick policy towards Islamabad and the decision to sell F16s needs to be seen and understood in this light.
The author is a former BBC journalist.