THE F-16s issue is back and along with it, memories of betrayals past. The recent refusal of Congress to sanction funds from the Foreign Military Financing (FMF) programme to help pay a large part of the cost of buying eight new F-16 fighter planes has stoked memories of the late 1980s. But it would be a mistake to miss the important lessons that the moment carries for us.
Then as now, a war was winding down in Afghanistan as a superpower’s army made arrangements to withdraw its forces and leave behind a functioning government of its own design. Then, as now, Pakistan’s alliance with America was fraying, due to the clandestine nuclear programme at the time and the question of militant sanctuaries today. The Shakil Afridi issue, added on by some members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to justify the refusal to sanction government funds for the arms, is just for public consumption, an issue around which politics can be easily built.
The real reason is clearly the diminishing utility of Pakistan brought on in part by an inability on its part to arrange for an Afghan Taliban delegation at the Afghan peace talks, as well as an inability to deliver a reduction in the levels of violence.
Sartaj Aziz’s statement that Pakistan can buy its fighter planes from elsewhere is pulling on a delicate thread.
Then as now, a president is preparing to leave and nobody knows how his replacement will approach the issue of securing American interests in Afghanistan. And then, as now, neighbouring India is in the midst of a massive arms build-up, triggering fears in Pakistan about its own outdated hardware and growing gap in conventional capabilities.
Back in 1990, when the first failure to certify Pakistan came, there was a palpable sense of shock in Pakistan about the betrayal. What was not properly understood within the country at the time, partly due to the legacy of a controlled press, was that there was ample advance warning given about the episode. But it seems Pakistan laid too much stock in the assurances given by their ‘friends’ in the Pentagon that somehow or the other, they will help find a way around congressional ire and get Pakistan those F-16s.
What had happened was that Pakistan had begun losing support in Congress as far back as 1984, when an amendment was adopted by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that “no military equipment or technology shall be sold or transferred to Pakistan unless the president could first certify that Pakistan does not possess a nuclear explosive device, is not developing a nuclear device, and is not acquiring goods to make such a device”.
The infamous Pressler Amendment replaced the certification required to simply be “(1) that Pakistan does not possess a nuclear explosive device; and (2) that new aid will reduce significantly the risk that Pakistan will possess such a device” in August 1985. This opened a loophole in the law through which military assistance could continue flowing.
The arrest of Arshad Pervez in July 1987, a Pakistani national who was caught trying to procure parts that could be used in a nuclear weapon, added enough fuel to the fire that the last three certifications were all a hard-fought affair.
The arrangement of procuring assistance from America to help pay for an arms build-up in Pakistan to match India’s growing capabilities was standing on a very narrow platform, which was growing narrower every year. By 1989, Pakistan had lost Congress, and the certification issued by the outgoing Reagan administration in December that year was only achieved after hectic efforts.
A new president was sworn in the following February, and with the change in administration came a change in faces, and a change in priorities. Since Pakistan was relying increasingly on the personal relationships built up with administration officials over the decade of covert war in Afghanistan, the change in administration swept away all the political capital the country had in Washington D.C.
When the payment was made for the second batch of F-16s in 1990, it was the largest single arms-related payment Pakistan had ever made, and it was made at a time when the country had struggled to build up its reserves from just over two weeks of import coverage, helped by an IMF programme signed in 1988.
This time around, the number of planes being procured is not as large, and the payment nowhere near as heavy as it was back then. This time too, some assurances are circulating that if Pakistan agrees to make full payment on the batch of F-16s, the funds promised under the FMF could be disbursed through other channels, squaring the account.
It was a mistake on the part of the Foreign Office to state so flatly that it is the administration’s job to push Pakistan’s case in Congress. And Sartaj Aziz’s statement that Pakistan can buy its fighter planes from elsewhere is also pulling on a delicate thread, because Pakistan’s economic clout is not enough to sway sentiments in Congress. It’s only eight planes after all, with a total price tag of just about $700 million. The administration gave their response quite clearly: you wish to buy them from elsewhere? Go right ahead.
The important lesson to draw here is the very weak and narrow foundations on which Pakistan has historically built its relationship with America. There are no real economic stakes, no large market access to leverage as political clout, no standing in the international community, no moral high ground to invoke. Just like the 1980s, the relationship is built on transactional grounds and heavily invested in personal relationships. Today that relationship is fraying, with the F-16 fighter once again the emblem of growing tensions.
Perhaps it is time to think about investing in other sources of strength besides military hardware. The time is right to ask why we keep finding ourselves at the same crossroads again and again.
The writer is a member of staff.
Published in Dawn, May 5th, 2016