It is official now. Pakistan’s top foreign policy aide to the Prime Minister and de facto Foreign Minister, Sartaj Aziz, told Parliament that relations with the United States have been deteriorating for the last three months. The immediate reason is refusal by the U.S. Congress to provide funds for eight F-16 jets.
The two sides agreed in October 2015 on the sale of eight Block-52 F-16 planes worth $700 million. Under the deal, Pakistan was required to pay $270 million, while the remaining $430 million was supposed to be provided by the U.S. from its Foreign Military Financing (FMF).
It was apparently a done deal until Congress intervened earlier this year to block the funding through FMF. The deal is still intact but it is facing delay over who will foot the billl.
Also indicated by Mr. Aziz in his briefing to Parliament was the fact that the issue is essentially political. But for Pakistan it is a matter of prestige due to Indian attempts to influence the U.S. to stop equipping Pakistan with modern aircraft and weaponry.
U.S. politicians are unhappy with Pakistan for several reasons. There is a general perception that Pakistan avoided taking any meaningful action against the Haqqani network of militants who were involved in several lethal attacks inside Afghanistan. The latest one killed more than 60 people in the heart of Kabul last month.
The Haqqani group allegedly operated from Pakistan’s ill-governed tribal areas on the border with Afghanistan. Pakistan says that actions by its armed forces uprooted the rebels who escaped to Afghanistan through the porous border. There are not many who take this assertion seriously outside Pakistan. Senior officials from the U.S. and Afghanistan allege that the rebels are still active in the border regions.
Another major issue is the imprisonment of Dr. Shakil Afridi. It is believed that Afridi helped the CIA track down Osama bin Laden in Pakistan’s Abbottabad town by organizing a fake vaccination campaign. The powerful Pakistani defense establishment was kept in the dark about it. Bin Laden was killed in a secret U.S. mission in May 2011 to the huge embarrassment of Pakistan and its army. The U.S. has been demanding his release, but so far Pakistan has refused.
Mr. Aziz said that the anti-Pakistan Indian lobby played a key role in blocking the funding for the F-16s. India and its supporters in the U.S. believe that the jets could be used by Pakistan against India in case of war. But Pakistan has insisted that it needs the jets to enhance precision strike capabilities against terrorists hiding in forested mountains.
The interesting part of the controversy is that U.S. has no issue in selling the F-16s to Pakistan; the only problem is that it is not ready to fund the purchase. Therefore, the argument that the sale was blocked as the jets might be used against India is not entirely valid. The real issue is Afghanistan where the U.S. wants Pakistan to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table for talks with the Afghan government and to take military action against those rebels who are against peace.
Pakistan-U.S. relations have a history of mistrust. The key issue is that the two sides have different sets of expectations and demands from one other. While U.S. officials accuse Pakistan of not doing enough in the war against terror, there are many Pakistanis who consider Washington as “untrustworthy.”
The years since the killing of bin Laden in 2011 have been difficult. But it is the responsibility of both sides to repair the cracks. For Pakistan, the ties with the U.S. still constitute an important part of foreign policy.
Mr. Aziz was right when he said that “this seven-decade-old relationship, while robust and wide ranging, is characterized with occasional vicissitudes. Despites its inherent challenges, both sides have managed to keep a pragmatic, working relationship over the course of years.”
Pakistan, being the junior partner, should see the relationship from a new perspective. The ongoing Strategic Dialogue mechanism can be the centerpiece, as it provides for a broader framework of cooperation not only on security issues but also in other areas like economy, energy, education, science and technology, climate change, regional integration, culture and democracy.
Sajjad Malik is a columnist with China.org.cn.