Vol. 5 Num 317 Mon. April 18, 2005  

US policy swing in South Asia

With the American decision on the sale of F-16 fighter aircraft to Pakistan obviously the mood is celebratory in Islamabad. But the close examination of the deal after a long hiatus as well as an analysis of another half of the story obfuscated by the current hype over the F-16's acquisition cannot but dampen much of the euphoria that has instantly created. There is, however, no denying that the acquisition of F-16 -- an extremely sophisticated, versatile and lethal weapon, the primary attack aircraft in the inventory of the US itself as well as Nato -- is indeed a major achievement for Pakistan which made the US supply of these aircraft the litmus test of the latter's sincerity and commitment to the alliance established between the two countries in the wake of Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The power and majesty of these aircraft are aptly claimed to be symbolic of the heights to which the US-Pakistan relation seems to have risen again -- thanks to Pakistan's role in US' war on terror.

F-16 had been Pakistan's most sought after military machine and the quest for its acquisition started right from the days of war in Afghanistan when late President Ziaul Huq wielded a great deal of influence on Reagan Administration. A series of impediments stood on the way -- the prominent being the Pressler Amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act of 1962 barring weapon sale to pursuing the development of nuclear weapon. The otherwise grateful Reagan Administration was somehow reluctant to provide these aircraft to Pakistan and was convinced it could satisfy the Pakistanis by offering less advanced aircraft. Belying American calculation Pakistan's resolve to acquire the F-16 remained unchanged with subsequent governments which all made its acquisition a prestige point. To make things difficult the US' policy considerations underwent dramatic change after the cold war which was decisively won by the Americans and an 'end of the history' was proclaimed by Francis Fukuyama. Pakistan was, as a result, unceremoniously dumped -- let alone any prospect for F-16.

Viewed against that backdrop the arrival now of F-16 to Pakistan is something near-mythical and at the same time perplexing. The baffled Pakistanis are non-plussed to understand the underlying US motive behind this change of heart. Because they know with their bitter experience of many ups and downs of their relationship with the US that there is nothing like 'free lunch' in international relations more so when it comes to America in whose culture the concept is totally alien. What is then the quid pro quo? What do the Americans expect from Pakistan? The speculations abound as to the magnanimity shown by the Americans!

Can there be some restrictive measures on Pakistan's nuclear capability or the imposition of some limitation on its nuclear regime after the US has made valuable addition to Pakistan's depleted national defence? Few think it to be a realistic proposition. No government in Pakistan would ever think of such compromise. Because there is a unanimity in the country in viewing this as set to be the real guarantor of Pakistan's sovereignty. Some quarters have advanced the notion of Pakistan signaling its willingness to be 'helpful' to the US to in any of its adventures she may be planning for Iran, for such help will be crucial for the US. Is the deal of F-16 an American down payment for any such Pakistani services in future? Few think that Pakistan will commit that act of ingratitude to a country which gave unqualified support to Pakistan both during 1965 and 1971 crises.

Instead the observers are unanimous that the war on terror is likely to be long term engagement which will keep the Americans involved in the region for long. Therefore they need to retain the logistical ground and air facilities presently available to them in Pakistan. F-16 -- even if not much relevant for anti-terror war -- is in that sense warmer in keeping relationship with Pakistan's leadership. The same contingency perhaps compelled Secretary Rice to reaffirm that relationship by referring to Pakistan "a friend and ally" during her recent visit to Pakistan. To the US' liking is also the sustained Indo-Pak engagement in the form of composite dialogue so that their cooperation becomes deep and Kashmir issue is no longer an impediment to India-Pakistan bilateral ties.

But the more ominous fear arises from the role that the US is likely to assign to India in the furtherance of US interests and which are likely to simultaneously promote Indian objectives as well. It is not for nothing that Bush Administration has been more magnanimous with India to whom it plans to sell not only F-16 but even the more advanced F-18 (while allowing their local manufacture) as well as the Patriot anti-missile system. The administration offers India cooperation in nuclear energy and space technology.

This is an ambitious agenda that would not only enhance India's superiority vis-a-vis Pakistan but also become a major 'unsettling' in India's relations with entire region, more importantly, with China. There can be no doubt the US now perceives India in terms of strategic partnership with all that such a relationship entails. What is significant in this connection is the prediliction of Secretary Rice who has strong proponent of according a special place to India in the US scheme of things. In an article in quarterly 'Foreign Affairs' she wrote as back as in the spring of 2000 suggesting that the US should pay "close attention to Indian role in the regional balance" "because it has the potential to emerge as a great power". Not surprisingly she has once again affirmed that the US plans to have "a decisively broader strategic relationship" with India to help it become a major world power this century.

It is in this context the US offer to sell F-16 to Pakistan should be seen. There is no doubt that the new US announcements with regard to the sale of vital weapons represents a new strategic initiative because it signals a fundamental shift in US policy as regard nuclear South Asia. It is no more possible to ignore the ramifications of growing Indo-US strategic ties. We in South Asia are about to enter what the Chinese call "interesting time", in other words an era of great uncertainty and turmoil.

Brig ( retd) Hafiz is former DG of BIISS.