A cartoon in Pakistan’s The Express Tribune perhaps best captured the country’s reaction to U.S. President Barack Obama’s January visit – his second – to India. It showed Obama and his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi meeting amicably in a tent while Pakistan is outside looking in. Understandably, many Pakistani officials are both jealous and upset over the recent bonhomie between Obama and Modi; the Pakistani foreign office said as much.
Obama’s concerted efforts to court India as part of Washington’s own shifting foreign policy objectives, coupled with the end of its military operations in Afghanistan, has tremendous implications for the security and economy of South Asia and beyond – for the better or not, remains to be seen.
Pakistan’s singular foreign policy objective is parity with India. But with neither the size nor the capital, Pakistan has recognized that it needs American assistance. Therefore, for much of its history, Pakistan has relied on American military and economic aid to maintain a bloated military disproportionate to its size. That same military has maintained a grip on Pakistani politics, either directly under a dictatorship or indirectly through rigging elections, coercing governments, and intimidation.
For the most part, the United States hasn’t especially minded. Even as late as 2008, former dictator Pervez Musharraf was a willing ally in America’s so-called War on Terror, and received billions of dollars in aid for his efforts. As the U.S. experimented with state building in Afghanistan, it required Pakistan’s help, given the influence Pakistan had with Afghan militias and warlords. But Pakistan had other ideas, and played what critics call a “double game.” It only fought militants that it thought posed a direct threat to the Pakistani state, and continued to fund, train and support militant groups that the Pakistani state thought would give it influence outside its border: Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Muhammad in Indian-held Kashmir, and the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani Network in Afghanistan.
The latter groups unremittingly thwarted American and Afghan efforts at stability, and derailed Pakistani-American relations in the process. Pakistan’s “Good Taliban Bad Taliban” policy, as it was called, coupled with continuing tensions between Pakistan’s civilian and military rulers brought Pakistani-American relations to a particularly low ebb during the last Pakistani civilian government’s tenure from 2008-2013.
The 2009 Kerry-Lugar Bill, officially known as the Enhanced Partnership With Pakistan Act, authorized $1.5 billion in aid for five years, but was met with derision and anger from the Pakistani military because the aid was contingent on strengthening civilian institutions. The Pakistani military conducted a smear campaign in the local media and organized anti-American protests to air their disapproval.
Meanwhile, the United States escalated its drone program.
Last month, the Obama administration announced that it had approved the sale of up to eight F-16 fighter jets to Pakistan in a deal valued at $699 million. Immediately the decision led to a strong pushback in the U.S. Congress. The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Bob Corker, raised serious concerns, stating, “They (Pakistan) continue to support the Taliban, the Haqqani network, and give safe haven to al Qaeda.”
Sen. John McCain, chairman of the U.S. Senate’s influential Armed Services committee, called for a hearing in the Senate’s Foreign Relations committee to further question the timing of the United States’ sale of fighter jets to Pakistan and suggested that he “would rather have seen it kicked over into the next administration.” His colleague from Kentucky, Sen. Rand Paul, separately called for a resolution that would block U.S. arms sales to Pakistan.
Members of Congress have 30 days to block the deal before it becomes official, but the Obama administration has strongly defended its decision. David McKeeby, a spokesman for the U.S. State Department – the agency responsible for conducting the deal – said, “Pakistan’s current F-16s have proven critical to the success of these operations to date. These operations reduce the ability of militants to use Pakistani territory as a safe haven for terrorism and a base of support for the insurgency in Afghanistan.” Secretary of State John Kerry himself has been at the forefront of this defense, suggesting that the Pakistani military “has been deeply engaged in the fight against terrorism.”Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
India’s reaction to the sale was strong. It disagreed with the U.S. stand that this sale would help in the fight against terrorism and instead has argued that it would be used against India. The U.S. ambassador to India was summoned to underscore India’s displeasure. New Delhi is seriously concerned about the changing balance of air power in the region as Pakistan today has four squadrons of F-16 fighters, all built with U.S. assistance. The anti-U.S. sentiment of Indian elites once again came to the fore with suggestions in sections of the media that the United States cannot be trusted.
New Delhi has some genuine concerns about U.S. military assistance to Pakistan. Such support has traditionally strengthened the military at the expense of the civilian government in Islamabad, with which India is trying to have a stable peace dialogue. Pakistan is yet to show that it is taking credible action against groups like the Haqqani network and Lashkar-e-Taiba. Groups targeting India and Afghanistan continue to be seen as essential in Pakistani foreign policy matrix. And historically, Washington has more often than not been wrong about its ability to shape Pakistani domestic and foreign policy positively with its military assistance. Just since 2002, the U.S. has provided $30 billion worth of aid and assistance to Pakistan. Despite this, the United States remains hugely unpopular in Pakistan and its policy of relying on Pakistan in Afghanistan has been a failure.
Clearly Washington has its own priorities insofar as its relations with Pakistan are concerned, especially in using Pakistan’s leverage in the on-going attempts at resuming peace talks with the Taliban. Obama’s Afghanistan policy has faced a lot criticism, particularly for his seeming haste in announcing the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country. Now, he has one last chance to seek a resolution in Afghanistan and Pakistan is viewed as critical to managing any political transition in Afghanistan. But Washington would do well to also take into account Indian interests. Where the Bush administration managed to effectively de-hyphenate India and Pakistan, the Obama administration has not been that sensitive to Indian views on regional issues. As it sends new fighters to Pakistan, Washington needs to be more emphatic in demanding that Pakistan cease exporting terror from its soil.
India should also be more confident of its own ability to shape the future trajectory of Indo-U.S. ties. After all, Lockheed Martin, the builder of the F-16, recently offered to move its production line to India from the United States to support the Modi government’s “Make in India” program. Today India is a global player in true sense of the term while Pakistan is just about managing to survive as a cohesive unit. Indian elites too need to de-hyphenate New Delhi from Islamabad in their own minds. Any overture that Washington makes toward Pakistan is immediately pounced upon as a sign of American duplicity. The reality is that Washington’s ties with New Delhi are truly strategic while its relationship with Pakistan is at best transactional, whatever gloss the two sides might want to put on it. India and the United States are today talking of jointly working on aircraft carriers, discussing joint patrols in the South China Sea, and are nearing completion on an agreement to share military logistics.
As New Delhi and Washington chart an ambitious trajectory in their bilateral ties, they need to find a more effective way of dealing with Pakistan. The Pakistan factor cannot be allowed to derail the positive momentum in this very important bilateral relationship, one that will be key in shaping the larger Indo-Pacific balance of the power in the coming years.