21 May 2016

To buy or not to buy: F-16, Pak, US & India

D. Suba Chandran

There has been a vitriolic public debate in Pakistani media that includes accusing India for attempting to sabotage the sale of F-16s. What are the issues and where lies the problem? Will Pakistan succeed in getting the F-16s from the US?

A file photo of US President Barack Obama with Pakistan''s PM Nawaz Sharif in the White House. REUTERS

F-16 fighter aircraft have become the latest bone of contention in the volatile Pakistan-US relations. During the last month, there have been a series of statements, demands, counter demands, threats and carrots, both from the US and Pakistan. The sale of eight American F-16s to Pakistan has been plaguing the relations between the countries, primarily due to American demands on Pakistan “to do more in Afghanistan”, differences within the US between the State Department, White House and the Congress, and (more importantly) who would foot the bill for the sale. While the first two seem to be getting addressed since February 2016, the sale is stuck with the last question: Should it be paid by the Pakistanis in full ($700 million) or be subsidised by American aid. Pakistan is willing to pay up to $270 million for the eight F-16s, but wants the rest to be covered by the US Foreign Military Funds. 

The F-16s, now manufactured by Lockheed Martin, is state-of-art, all-weather multi-role fighter aircraft. Pakistan has placed an order for eight such aircraft, primarily to augment its air power, obviously vis-a-vis India. As a country, Pakistan has every right to structure its threat perceptions and pursue strategies to address them. In case of any military confrontation with India, Pakistan would need a quick strategic push in the initial days/hours; air superiority is essential for such an early but decisive strike vis-a-vis India. Else, the sheer size of Indian military machinery would bulldoze Pakistan in any long-drawn confrontation. If Pakistan has to lose any initial advantage, it would then have to fall back on nuclear options, which is a risky proposition. Pakistan's need for F-16s is obvious. But the cost of eight F-16s ($700 million) is substantial. 

While the country's political leaders and others may have looted Pakistan and stocked the funds offshore, as the Panama Papers would reveal. They do not want to pay for the purchase from their national kitty. (According to Panama Papers, not only political leaders such as Nawaz Sharif, Imran Khan have offshore investments, even scientists such as AQ Khan possess them). Pakistan would rather want that the entire sale of eight F-16s from the US to be heavily subsidised by Washington, as part of the American aid to Islamabad, with no conditions attached. From the American side, there are serious questions. First, there is a problem between the institutions. While the State Department would want to go ahead with the deal (by subsidising the sale through the American Foreign Military Fund, so that Pakistan ends up paying only $270 million), the Congress has serious objections. With a Republican majority, the debates within the US Congress in recent years have become nuanced and shrill vis-a-vis Pakistan. 

They demand accountability from Pakistan in terms of its policies and actions vis-a-vis Afghanistan, and the GHQ-ISI role in the War against Terrorism. Since 2001, during the last 15 years, Pakistan has lost many of its friends in the Congress. It is today seen as undependable. Since the US has substantially invested in Pakistan through military aid, both the Congressmen and the Senators have been repeatedly asking for accountability for the American funds provided and end results in fighting all the militant groups in the Af-Pak region, including the Quetta Shura and the Haqqani network. Obama's descent (and thereby the White House's) in the American foreign policy and his disillusionment with Pakistan (as could be observed from some of his recent statements) has not helped Pakistan's case in the US Congress. 

Despite this, the US Congress could still be persuaded to support the F-16 deal — meaning subsidise the sale through American aid. For that, the US Congress would want solid promises by Pakistan supported by actions in the ground in fighting all militant groups and helping the US achieve peace in Afghanistan. But for Pakistan, such a “precondition” is unacceptable. It wants the F-16s. And it wants them to be subsidised by US aid, with no conditions. As a response, Pakistan is pursuing a strategy that would only further rupture its relations with the US. First, there is an un-informed debate (perhaps purposefully fuelled), based on Pakistan's national pride and sacrifices in the War on Terrorism. A section tries to project that the US is trying to “get” Pakistan and make it subservient to Washington's regional strategy. 

The following is from an editorial in a leading newspaper: “Pakistan is expected to deliver peace in Afghanistan, allow Balochistan to secede and accept Indian hegemony and it is expected to do so meekly and immediately.” There have also been reports linking India to have played a role in scuttling the deal. One of the leading newspapers in its editorial cartoon, projected Modi as a bigger anaconda and Obama as a smaller viper, saying “yes boss”. Such projections and “back- stabbing” narratives will further increase the anti-American sentiments. Perhaps, it is a calculated assault to convince the “naive” Americans that they have to do something to arrest the anti-American sentiments. Else, the jihadis will cash in on these. Second, as Sartaj Aziz proclaimed that Pakistan would look elsewhere, if the US blocks the deal. According to him, “If the US arranges funds, Pakistan will get the F-16s from them, otherwise we will opt for jets from some other place.” True, there are other options for Pakistan — France and Russia — but will they help Pakistan by subsidising? Sukhoi can be a replacement for F-16, but will the Russians be willing to sell at a subsidised cost? 

Or, will China be able to underwrite? The best option for Pakistan will be to provide few promises silently to the US, and take fewer military actions at the ground level. And to use those friendly elements in the State Department to convince the US Congress that Pakistanis are doing enough, so the sale could be subsidised or perhaps, bargained further. This is the most likely scenario. Unless, the US Congress backed by an increasingly hostile media (vis-a-vis Pakistan), scuttles the deal completely. That means an entire different scenario, with a tougher road ahead for US and Pakistan. The writer is a Professor at National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), Bangalore.

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