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Two Pakistans

Updated May 10, 2016
The writer is a foreign policy expert based in Washington, DC.
The writer is a foreign policy expert based in Washington, DC.

American lawmakers have declined to allow the US administration to use taxpayer dollars to pay for eight F-16 aircraft to be sold to Pakistan.

In my engagement with media, I found some confusion: how should we read the fact that the US government and lawmakers on Capitol Hill who have put a hold on the money have presented different viewpoints? The administration notified the Hill that the F-16 deal is in US national interest. Then why the negative reaction?

I have been repeatedly asked whether this is really about who pays for the jets. Or, as our media seems to suspect, is it the ‘anti-Pakistan’ lobbies again?

Read: Congress at odds with US govt over F-16s

Or is this a move coming out of the 1990s playbook when the US refused to deliver F-16 aircraft (already paid for by Pakistan) and this became the flagship for a precipitous breakdown of ties?

First, let us be clear on what the relevant US lawmakers have said. They had two linked, but separate, decisions to make. The first was whether Pakistan should get the F-16s at all. If they agreed, the next question was who should pay for them. They said ‘yes’ to the sale but declined the financing.

The issue at play isn’t an exorbitant price tag. Rather, it reflects the US’s struggle to work with ‘two Pakistans’ simultaneously: the Pakistan that Washington sees as insincere on terrorism (specifically in Afghanistan where its policies are believed to have directly undermined US interests); and the Pakistan that is an 180-million-strong nuclear power whose failure would have catastrophic implications for global security, and thus one whose stability must be bolstered through supportive relations.

There is an inherent tension between the two, affecting much of what has transpired in bilateral relations over the past decade.


There is no ‘agenda’ attached to the F-16 decision.


The F-16 episode is a vivid example. Even as the Obama administration has been pushing Pakistan to change its Afghan policy, its pitch for the deal was based on Pakistan’s importance as a large nuclear state. The F-16s would signal Washington’s commitment to Pakistan (in addition to providing its military additional counterinsurgency capability).

Asking Pakistan to pay for them wouldn’t really gel with this outlook. Given Pakistan’s resource crunch, this would come across as another way of saying ‘no’.

The Hill’s decision, on the other hand, is driven more by the Pakistan that is believed to have constantly played footsy in Afghanistan.

Their message is that paying for the jets with US taxpayer money would be like rewarding Pakistan’s Afghan policy. There is also the lingering hope that holding money back on such occasions may force a rethink in this policy in line with US wishes.

Examine: Shakil Afridi — the $430 million man

At the end of the day, both the administration and lawmakers understand the two parallel US interests vis-à-vis Pakistan. That is why Pakistan has continued to receive significant aid since 9/11 but there has simultaneously been angst and anger over Afghanistan.

This tension is not easy for Washington to resolve. Both Pakistans are realities: Pakistan is too important to be let go; and Pakistani and US approaches in Afghanistan have never converged, notwithstanding much of the pretence to the contrary. Neither is about to change.

The corollary is that ties are likely to continue their oscillatory pattern. They will seem to improve only when the situation in Afghanistan offers an opportunity for the positions of the two sides to come closer, but will fall out of orbit as soon as this ceases to be the case.

This is precisely why things seemed somewhat calmer over the past year or so: the Afghanistan conversation had shifted almost exclusively to reconciliation. Since Pakistan was to play a major role by bringing the Afghan Taliban to the table, everyone attempted to push for this. As this effort has failed and violence in Afghanistan continued, the discussion has quickly pivoted back to highlighting Pakistan’s continued reluctance to go after the Taliban and Haqqani network. This was spelt out plainly in the official reasoning provided for the F-16 decision.

Our media pundits would do well not to pretend to know of any nefarious agendas about the deal since none exist. Specifically, insinuations that this is meant to cut off Pakistan, to India’s advantage, etc. are fictional. No one is thinking of a divorce in relations.

Also, we need to kill the rhetoric about Pakistan having substitute alignment options if the US doesn’t come through on the F-16s. True substitute options that could offset the sole superpower are a myth in a unipolar world. The Chinese have reminded us of this every time we’ve complained to them about the US. Besides, this hyper-nationalism only makes positive diplomacy even tougher for both sides.

The writer is a foreign policy expert based in Washington, DC.

Published in Dawn, May 10th, 2016