External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar’s 10-day visit to the United State included an intense week in Washington, marked by many official meetings and areas of agreement- but the US’s decision to offer Pakistan a maintenance package for fighter aircraft became a flashpoint- why is the F-16 such a thorn in the side of India-US ties?
In Washington this week Mr. Jaishankar had a series of meetings and discussions, including:
1. US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, with whom he discussed
- bilateral defence cooperation in support of India's contributions as a regional security provider,
- the launch of a new defencee dialogue later this year
- cooperation on space, cyber, artificial intelligence, and other technology areas
2. US Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, as well as business chambers USIBC and USISPF to discuss
- trade cooperation and increasing investments
- India’s participation in the IPEF and decision to stay out of trade talks
- building resilient supply chains, hi-tech partnerships and the semi conductor industry
3. US NSA Jake Sullivan to talk about
- Indo-Pacific, South Asia and the Gulf region
- Food and energy security issues arising from Russian war in Ukraine
4. And finally with US Secretary of State, whom he met once for dinner, and then for formal talks, where they discussed all of the above aspects to the relationship, as well as:
- cooperation at the UN, G-20, Quad and other multilateral forums
- Visa issues for Indians, and the massive backlog for visa appointments: with an 833 day or 2year wait for applicants
- a wide range of cooperation between both countries
- But one issue where differences came to the fore was over the US decision in early September to provide Pakistan with an FMS (Foreign Military Sale) of a maintenance package for F-16 fighter jets it has sold to Pakistan in the past.
The MEA had already conveyed a quiet protest to State department officials in Delhi, and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh raised the issue in a phonecall with Gen Austin, but then Mr. Jaishankar really lashed out while speaking to the Indian diaspora:
Mr. Jaishankar said, “It’s really for the United States today to reflect on the merits of this relationship and what they get by it. For someone to say I am doing this because it is all counter-terrorism content and so when you are talking of an aircraft like a capability of an F-16 where everybody knows, you know where they are deployed and their use. You are not fooling anybody by saying these things”
The US has defended the package, saying ties with India and Pakistan are separate. Mr. 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. That’s our obligation. Pakistan’s program bolsters its capability to deal with terrorist threats emanating from Pakistan or from the region. It’s in no one’s interest that those threats be able to go forward with impunity, and so this capability that Pakistan has had can benefit all of us in dealing with terrorism.”
Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto, who was also in Washington this week had something more flippant to say, “On F-16s, of course India is upset. Let them be. What can we do?”
What is the history of F-16 programme, and why does it carry so much baggage?
To begin with, F-16 Falcons have always been seen as a barometer of the US-Pakistan relationship:
1. In 1981, as US-Pakistan cooperation against Soviets in Afghanistan got underway- the US sold 40 F-16 jets to Pakistan. These were used to protect mujahideen training camps and shoot down Soviet jets and transporters
2. In 1990, after the Soviets left Afghanistan, ties spiralled- and after the US Pressler amendment on nuclear proliferation concerns, the US held back a Pakistani order for 28 F-16 jets- even though Pakistan had paid for $658 million in advance. Eventually the US refunded the money.
3. From 2005-2015, after US-Pakistan cooperation restarted after 9/11 and the “war on terrorism”, the US resumed its F-16 sales to Pakistan – delivering 23 F-16 As and Bs from the previous order,
selling 19 advanced F-16s and upgrading the previous ones. In all today, Pakistan has about 85 F-16s of various variants. In 2016 the Obama administration approved the sale of 8 more, but the US Congress turned down a plan to susidize them, and Pakistan dropped the deal.
4. Then in 2018, US President Trump, tired of Pakistan’s unkept promises on fighting terrorism and on Afghanistan cancelled all further defence sales and support funding to Pakistan- the period began a low point in US-Pakistan ties, especially with the Imran Khan government, which US President Biden refused to meet or engage with.
5. The decision to provide $450 million worth of F-16 support and equipment marks an uptick in US-Pakistan ties again- Mr. Blinken has met with and spoken over the phone to Mr. Bhutto a number of times since May, and President Biden met with PM Shehbaz Sharif at a reception he hosted in New York last week.
What is the reason for Mr. Jaishankar’s angry words, and why is New Delhi concerned about the $450 million package?
1. This marks the first US military sale to Pakistan since the time US acknowledged Pakistan had been double dealing and was an untrustworthy partner on Afghanistan. The larger question, is the US perception of that changing in any way?
2. This is also the first such package since Pakistan’s grey listing on terror financing, which it hopes to exit this year. The concern in India is this could weaken the war against terrorism as well, if Pakistan feels emboldened to step up support to anti-India terror groups
3. Balakot: During the 2019 Balakot skirmish, when an Indian plane was shot down, India had shown fragments of a missile as proof that Pakistan had used US F-16s in the dogfight, which are only meant for counter-terrorism purposes. The concern in Delhi is Mr. Blinken is whitewashing the incident, and the US, which has never confirmed the Indian claim is basically turning a blind eye to Pakistan’s misuse of the F-16s by providing more support.
4. Dealing with two fronts: Particularly as India deals with aggression from China and focuses its resources there, any arming of Pakistan by the US could alter the regional military balance. The US deal also casts a shadow over the US’s plans to sell India F-21 fighter jets, which are seen as a rebranded version of the F-16s. New Delhi will watch a visit in the next few weeks by Pakistan Army Chief General Bajwa to Washington very closely, as a result.
India-US ties are set on such a close-knit trajectory that it is unlikely that the F-16 support deal to Pakistan alone will prove to be more than just a fly in the ointment, a minor irritant in ties. However, it is the larger ramifications of a possible detente in Washington-Islamabad ties, that soars and plunges by turns, which has in the past meant a greater security threat for India that are the bigger worry, and it is necessary that the US recognise this...especially after its handover to the Taliban in Afghanistan.
1. The Battle for Pakistan: The Bitter US Friendship and a Tough Neighbourhood by Shuja Nawaz
2. No-Win War: The Paradox of US-Pakistan Relations in Afghanistans Shadow by Zahid Hussain
3. How Pakistan Negotiates with the United States: Riding the Roller Coaster by Teresita and Howard Schaffer
4. No Exit from Pakistan: America's Tortured Relationship with Islamabad Daniel Markey
5. The Great Game in Afghanistan: Rajiv Gandhi, General Zia and the Unending War by Kallol Bhattacherjee
6. War on Peace – The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence by Ronan Farrow
7. Defending Frenemies Alliances, Politics, and Nuclear Nonproliferation in US Foreign Policy By Jeffery Talliaffero
8. A Perilous Course: U.S. Strategy and Assistance to Pakistan By Frederick Barton and Craig Cohen