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F-16 sale in jeopardy

F-16 sale in jeopardy

PAKISTAN and American F-16s have a long and complicated political history. A symbol of both Pakistani national-security pride and resentment, the F-16 looks set to reprise its role as a symbol of American betrayal of Pakistan in the 1990s. Back then, with the war in Afghanistan against the Soviets winding down, Pakistan was made aware of the limits of American cooperation and friendship. Infamously, the US not only blocked the transfer of more F-16s to Pakistan, but refused to return the money Pakistan had already paid for them. This time, the specifics are different, but the regional circumstances familiar. With the American war effort in Afghanistan vastly diminished and the need to rely on Pakistan for supply routes virtually eliminated, Pakistan is learning that it has neither any friends in the US Congress willing to release funds for the sale of eight subsidised F-16s, nor apparently anyone in the White House who considers it important enough to lobby Congress on behalf of Pakistan. Pakistan can still have the eight F-16s, but only if it pays the full price — a decision that virtually blocks the sale. Rejecting Pakistan appears to be once again fashionable in Washington D.C.

The story of ties with Congress is a particularly painful one. Where once at least some pragmatic understanding of the need to maintain a security-based relationship could be relied on, now Congress is mostly in the news on the Pakistan front for hostile statements against the country. Be it Afghanistan, Balochistan or India, there are several congressmen and senators who have taken their attacks against Pakistan to an unacceptable level. Part of it can be explained by the inability and unwillingness of the Pakistan foreign policy establishment, and particularly a succession of leaders in the Washington embassy of Pakistan, to cultivate ties in the US Congress. Unlike India, Pakistan has never really embraced the American way of doing business on Capitol Hill. But a great deal of the explanation is that sections of the US Congress, driven by domestic political concerns and freed from the constraints of a major war effort in Afghanistan, are demonstrating an antipathy towards Pakistan because they now can. 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. That is not only preposterous, but a dangerous rhetorical escalation by the US Congress.

Yet, it is perhaps not Congress alone that is to blame. Under President Obama, who recently described Pakistan as a “disastrously dysfunctional country” to an American magazine, there has been a growing reluctance to engage with Pakistan other than on the narrowest of security grounds. How much effort has the White House really put into lobbying critical elements in the US Congress who are undermining the Pak-US relationship? Surely, an increasingly disengaged White House is part of the problem.

Published in Dawn, May 1st, 2016

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