Washington: The penny finally dropped in the matter of F-16s for Pakistan vs. the people of the US. The US Congress, it seems, will not allow American taxpayer money to subsidise the sale.
It is a measure of anger against Pakistan on Capitol Hill that despite the Obama administration batting for the subsidy, the people’s representatives put their collective foot down. It’s a rare occurrence that the executive branch loses a foreign policy battle to the legislature, especially one it fought hard and long.
In asserting its control over America’s purse strings, the US Congress seems determined to make Pakistan pay the full price of $700 million for the aircraft as opposed to the subsidised amount of $270 million. The message: you are welcome to buy the jets but with your own dime.
The Indian government and Indian Americans also lobbied the US Congress hard against the F-16s in the face of the Pathankot attack, continued freedom for terrorist leader Hafiz Saeed to hold rallies, no credible action against Masood Azhar and the rebuffing of Indian peace overtures.
Admittedly, eight F-16s won’t change the military balance in Pakistan’s favour but the Obama administration’s remarkable diligence in ignoring evidence of Pakistani complicity is breathtaking for most observers, including many US academics and policy analysts.
The F-16s were to be a parting gift from the Obama’s White House to the Pakistani military to keep things relatively calm in the remaining months. Or at least keep the pretence of peace-making in Afghanistan. But now the Taliban have refused to come to the table and showed their bloody hand and Pakistan’s inability or unwillingness to do much.
The planes became a symbol of all that is wrong with US policy on Pakistan. It has been money for nothing and deaths for free. Even after $25 billion in US military and economic aid and 2,300 American soldiers dead in Afghanistan since 9/11 largely because of Pakistan’s complicity, the US State Department and the White House continue to believe in the unbelievable – that eventually Pakistan will behave.
They are wedded to the idea of bribing Pakistan in exchange for its cooperation, a policy that has failed repeatedly and to the detriment of both the US and the entire South Asian region.
It’s revealing that the State Department has not certified – as required by law – that Pakistan is cooperating in the war against terror. They have simply “waived” the certification, citing “national security interest,” something US administrations do as an easy way around their own laws.
Meanwhile, the dirty secret of the war in Afghanistan is out – if Pakistan were an honest partner, the war could have been won or at least not lost as badly. Instead, the world’s superpower finds itself in the jaws of defeat and more and more policy makers are beginning to acknowledge the fact in public.
As a result anti-Pakistan sentiment has grown steadily over the years in Washington and the dam has burst on Capitol Hill. Leaders of both the House and the Senate in both political parties have taken to criticising Pakistan in the strongest terms for being a deceitful partner in the “war against terrorism.”
Last week during a Congressional hearing, member after member blamed Pakistan for the continued violence in Afghanistan, for harbouring the Haqqani Network and Lashkar-e-Toiba, for not delivering the Taliban to the negotiating table and finally for working against the US. Interestingly, the only Congressman who was somewhat mild was Ami Bera of California, the sole Indian American in the House of Representatives.
The subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific was examining the administration’s 2017 budget proposal for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Richard Olson, the State Department’s special representative for Af-Pak was the official on trial to justify a $742 million request for Islamabad.
Olson, a career diplomat, was repeatedly hammered as he tried to defend the F-16s sale. He called them a “part of our overall program of support for the Pakistan military” and crucial for counterterrorism operations because of the “precision strike capability.”
Under sustained and intense questioning, Olson admitted that Pakistan was targeting only its domestic enemies and it needed to take more “robust action” against all terrorist groups. “Pakistan is at a strategic crossroads…Their stated policy is not to discriminate (between terrorist groups but)… Pakistan has not taken vigorous action against groups that threaten its neighbours. We believe there is considerable room for improvement.”
Congressmen Matt Salmon, a Republican, shot back saying that Pakistanis “too often do (the) bare minimum to keep the money flowing without real change. Pakistan’s priorities are seriously misaligned with our own.”
“Many members of Congress, including me, seriously question the judgment and timing of such a sale. Additionally, Indo-Pak tensions remain elevated and some question whether the F-16s could ultimately be used against India or other regional powers, rather than the terrorists as Pakistan has asserted,” Salmon went on.
Congressman Brad Sherman, a Democrat, added his voice, “We need to offer Pakistan those weapon systems well-crafted to go after terrorists and not crafted for a war with India.”
It was then time for subcommittee chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican, to say what many have thought for years in New Delhi, Kabul and increasingly in parts of the Washington wonk world. “I think we need to leverage our military sales to Pakistan in order to get some more cooperation in the region,” she said.
All members also uniformly condemned Pakistan for jailing Shakil Afridi, a doctor who helped the CIA in collecting DNA samples to help ascertain Osama bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad.
None of the American sentiment seems to have reached Islamabad where Pakistani officials blamed the Obama administration for not doing enough to convince the US Congress while the press railed against Pakistani diplomats for failing to do their job. No one, but no one seemed to seriously understand the reasons behind American anger – Pakistan’s duplicitous role in the war against terrorism.
Tariq Fatemi, special assistant to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, said it was the Obama administration’s job to successfully steer the F-16s through the US Congress. “Pakistan has already rendered great services in the war against terror, so its case is strong,” Fatemi said.
But it’s clear that Pakistan’s case currently is at its weakest.
Seema Sirohi is a Washington DC-based commentator.