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US refuses to take position on F-16 issue

Updated March 07, 2019

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State Department's spokesperson Robert Palladino says US is "following that issue very closely". — Robert Palladino's Twitter account
State Department's spokesperson Robert Palladino says US is "following that issue very closely". — Robert Palladino's Twitter account

WASHINGTON: The US State Department has refused to take a position on New Delhi’s complaint against Pakistan for using F-16s in an air combat with India, saying that it does not offer public comments on bilateral agreements.

“We have seen those reports and we’re following that issue very closely. I can’t confirm anything, but as a matter of policy, we don’t publicly comment on the contents of bilateral agreements... involving US defence technologies,” the department’s deputy spokesman Robert Palladino said.

Know more: Foreign journalists find holes in Indian narrative on F-16 usage, Balakot strike

At a news briefing on Tues­day, Mr Palladino said the US also avoided public discussions on communications with other countries about such issues.

“So we’re taking a look and we’re going to continue to take a look, and I’m going to leave it at that,” he said.

On Wednesday, New York Times journalist Maria Abi-Habib released a set of tweets saying that contrary to India’s insistence, Pakistan may not have violated its F-16 sales agreement with the US even if it used the American-made fighter jets to shoot down Indian aircraft last week.

On Feb 27, Pakistan Air Force announced that it had shot down two Indian aircraft inside Pakistani airspace when they tried to give chase to Pakistani jets.

Indian officials, however, complained that the aircraft used by the PAF to ingress into occupied Kashmir had included an F-16.

New Delhi insisted that Pakistan’s use of F-16 against India meant that Islamabad stood in violation of a sales agreement with the US, which reportedly restricts the fighter jets to be used for anti-terrorism activities alone.

However, Abi-Habib, the NYT’s South Asia correspondent, explained how Pakistan may not have committed a violation of its sales agreement with the US even if it did use F-16s to shoot down Indian jets (which the PAF says never happened). “The US says if Pakistan used an F-16 to shoot down an Indian MiG, it may not have violated sale agreement,” she tweeted.

“They say if India entered Pakistani airspace for a second day, and Pakistan used the jet defensively, the contract wasn’t violated. But, if Pakistan used an F-16 to attack India first, then deal was violated.”

Citing weapons experts and officials, Abi-Habib also put a question mark on the Indian Air Force’s claim that the AIM-120 missile’s remnant that was displayed by New Delhi was ‘proof’ of Pakistan’s use of an F-16 in the counter-strike to the Balakot incident. She also said US officials still do not have sufficient reason to bel­ieve that an F-16 was shot down by India, as claimed by the IAF.

Abi-Habib noted that despite its desire to strengthen its ties with India, the US was not endorsing the Indian version of last week’s events. She described the US reluctance as “very interesting”.

At the State Department briefing, Mr Palladino said the US was still engaged in “high level” but “quiet” diplomacy to reduce tensions between South Asia’s two nuclear-armed neighbours.

“We continue to urge both sides to continue to take steps to de-escalate the situation, and that includes through direct communication. And we believe strongly that further military activity will exacerbate the situation,” he said.

He noted that last week, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo played a direct and “essential role in de-escalating the tensions” when he spoke with leaders in both countries, including Indian Minis­ter of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj, National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and Pak­istani Foreign Minis­ter Shah Mehmood Qureshi.

Published in Dawn, March 7th, 2019