The sale of eight U.S. F-16s to Pakistan has run into troubled waters with Congress blocking the release of funds towards the deal. Under the earlier agreement between the United States and Pakistan, approximately $430 million of the $700 million bill for the F-16s was to be paid by Washington.
But there was stiff opposition in Congress, when lawmakers questioned the “judgement and timing of the sale” and wondered whether the F-16s, ostensibly being sold to Pakistan to aid in its counter-terrorism operations, “could ultimately be used against India or other regional powers.”
Earlier this year, Bob Corker, the chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, raised questions on the Obama administration’s proposed sale of F-16s to Pakistan, while Pakistan continued to “support the Taliban, the Haqqani Network and give safe havens to al-Qaeda.” More recently, Congress has criticized Pakistan for its continued imprisonment of Dr. Shakil Afridi for his role in aiding the U.S. in locating and killing Osama bin Laden in 2011.
These deliberations over the sale of F-16s to Pakistan and the larger questions being raised on nature of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship are occurring in the midst of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. The United States has attempted to lean on Pakistan to persuade the Afghan Taliban to participate in peace talks with Kabul’s unity government. A key section of the Taliban allied to Mullah Mansour resides in Pakistan under the protection of the country’s security establishment.
Sartaj Aziz, the foreign affairs advisor to Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, claimed during a recent visit to Washington, D.C. that Pakistan had the necessary leverage over this group, but his government has thus far not been successful in bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table with Kabul.
Meanwhile, the United States and the Ashraf Ghani-led unity government in Afghanistan have grown increasingly frustrated with Pakistan after a series of Taliban terror strikes in Afghanistan. Ghani, who expended considerable political capital early on in his term in office by his courting of Pakistan, has since demanded that Islamabad “take action against those who have their centers in Pakistan.”
It may be the case that Pakistan, faced with having to deal with a fractious Taliban that is in the midst of internecine conflict, doesn’t have the ability to coerce its leaders to participate in negotiations. It is also possible that Pakistan simply has no interest in a political settlement between Kabul and the Taliban; the United States and Pakistan, after all, have divergent objectives as far as the future of Afghanistan is concerned. Either way, Pakistan’s utility in meeting U.S. objectives in Afghanistan appears to have been oversold.
In the United States, a version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) 2017 passed by the House Armed Services Committee last week will make Pakistan ineligible for approximately $450 million for the period October 2016-December 2017, unless the secretary of defense certifies that Pakistan is conducting counter-terrorism operations against the Haqqani Network, a group described by former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen as a “veritable arm of the ISI.”
Pakistan already stands to lose approximately $300 million, withheld by Congress from 2016’s defense authorization, because Secretary Carter has thus far been unable to certify Pakistan’s commitment to taking on the Haqqani Network. Whether or not a certification is forthcoming and what form NDAA 2017 ultimately takes with respect to Pakistan could serve as a barometer of the trajectory of U.S.-Pakistan relations.
In a previous column in The Diplomat, I expressed skepticism that the sale and transfer of F-16s to Pakistan would go through. I observed that the U.S. has used a variety of tools, including, significantly, the transfer of F-16s since the 1980s, to incentivize Pakistani compliance or action on key U.S. national security interests. Clearly, Pakistan’s unwillingness or inability to facilitate peace negotiations in Afghanistan or target terrorist groups like the Haqqani Network from operating from its territory is not winning it any new friends in the corridors of power in DC.
The Pakistanis have thus far attempted to put on a brave face, with Aziz suggesting that his country will “look for planes from somewhere else.” While it is of course true that there are other prospective suppliers, it is unlikely that Pakistan can secure as lucrative a financing deal with them as it has with the United States.
The United States itself is in election season and it is not likely that Obama, who once referred to Pakistan as a “disastrously dysfunctional country” will go to battle against Congress on behalf of Pakistan. Ultimately, Pakistan may be left with having to ingratiate itself with whomever succeeds President Obama in the White House.