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US military package offer to Pakistan signals change in South Asia policy

The US offer to upgrade Pakistan’s F-16 fighter planes has raised questions over whether Washington was trying to send a message to New Delhi.

September 29, 2022 / 04:57 PM IST
Image: Reuters

Image: Reuters

The US offer to upgrade Pakistan’s F-16 aircraft with a $450 million military package shows Islamabad is back in the reckoning in America’s South Asia policy.

The Donald Trump presidency had stopped US military aid to Pakistan for its failure to take satisfactory action against terrorism. The Joe Biden administration also adopted a similar policy in the initial days, when the new US President refused to talk to Imran Khan, then Pakistan’s prime minister.

Bilateral relations worsened in the aftermath of the chaotic withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, which brought into focus Pakistan’s role in helping the Taliban retake Kabul.

The ostensible reason for upgrading the F-16 jets is to help Pakistan fight al Qaeda and Islamic State terrorists in Afghanistan. This meant the Biden administration was not only overturning Trump’s decision, it was also expressing satisfaction at Pakistan’s efforts to combat terrorism.

Concerned by Washington’s decision, Indian foreign minister S. Jaishankar said the US argument would not convince anybody. In the past, sophisticated weapons supplied by the US to Pakistan have only been used against India. There is no doubt in the Indian establishment that the upgraded F-16s too will be used by Pakistan in future conflicts with India and not in Afghanistan.

Pakistan’s attempt to act against Tehrik-e-Taliban-Pakistan fighters based in Afghanistan earlier this year evoked strong protests from the Kabul regime.

Civilian risk

If Pakistan were to use the F-16s to hunt down al Qaeda and IS fighters in Afghanistan, it would risk killing civilians and jeopardising relations with the Taliban regime. This could adversely affect Islamabad’s policy to maintain a friendly government in Kabul and its desire to use Afghanistan for strategic depth in the event of a military conflict with India.

Observers said Pakistan was rewarded for helping the US to eliminate top al Qaeda leader Ayman Zawahiri through a drone attack in Afghanistan in July.

The Pakistan leadership had lost the trust and confidence of the US government when Osama bin Laden was found hiding in a safe house in Abbottabad, close to a Pakistani military cantonment. He was killed in a US Navy Seals operation in May 2011.

The offer of the F-16 package to Pakistan shows it has managed to make amends for its past actions by cooperating in the operation against Zawahiri. Washington’s engagement with Islamabad was also renewed when Imran Khan, who pursued an anti-American policy, was thrown out of power in April.

Observers expressed surprise that the US would continue to supply sophisticated weapons to Pakistan when the Sino-American rivalry for influence in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond has risen alarmingly. China has become Islamabad’s main arms supplier in recent years.

There are few takers in India for arguments that the Biden government’s military cooperation with Pakistan was to wean it away from China’s strong embrace.

Since the US offer to Pakistan came in the wake of Jaishankar’s meeting with senior officials in the Biden administration, it raised questions over whether Washington was trying to send a message to New Delhi.

There is speculation the US is getting back to its old policy of maintaining a balance between India and Pakistan. The Biden administration has been miffed with India for not joining the US and European countries in condemning Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.

Traditional ally

India’s neutrality has prevented the US-led western alliance from projecting the campaign to isolate Moscow as a wider fight between liberal democracies and autocratic regimes.

India is the lone member in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue—the Quad, with the US, Australia, and Japan as other members—that has not condemned Russia or imposed sanctions on the country.

India cannot jeopardise its relations with Russia, its traditional ally and strategic partner and also its chief supplier of arms, especially when it is engaged in a military standoff with China at the frontier.

The offer to upgrade Pakistan’s F-16s could be a signal to India to reduce its arms dependence on Russia further in favour of the US and European countries.

Notwithstanding the disappointment with the US for ignoring its concerns over Pakistan, India is likely to continue engaging with the US in a wide array of areas from defence to critical and emerging technology, trade and investment, and culture and education.

The upswing in Indo-US ties that began a decade ago is likely to continue and grow. However, as India maintains its strategic autonomy by pursuing other relations, it will also prepare to deal with challenges that Washington would pose by using its relations with Pakistan to keep New Delhi unsettled.
Pranay Sharma