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Business News/ Opinion / The US continues to stumble on Pakistan

The US continues to stumble on Pakistan

The transfer of F-16s is meant to appease the army generals in Rawalpindi

Illustration: Jayachandran/MintPremium
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

The voice of protests from New Delhi and US legislators notwithstanding, the Obama administration seems determined to go ahead with the sale of eight F-16 fighter jets to Pakistan. Secretary of state John Kerry would like the world to believe that these fighter jets are essential to Pakistan in its fight against terrorism. This theory has few takers, fewer among the informed. Contrast this to the enthusiasm being shown by the US to enlist India’s cooperation to keep Chinese maritime ambitions in check.

The chief of the US Pacific Command Admiral Harry Harris, speaking at a recently held event in New Delhi, said that “in the not too distant future, American and Indian Navy vessels steaming together will become a common and welcome sight throughout Indo-Asia-Pacific waters, as we work together to maintain freedom of the seas for all nations". While Manohar Parrikar, India’s defence minister, has ruled out any prospects of “joint patrol" with the US, the disjunction in Washington’s policy with respect to India has less to do with coincidence and more to do with design.

As the Obama’s administration is drawing to a close, the US is realizing that its pivot/rebalance to Asia leaves a lot to be desired. To be sure, the US has, of late, woken up to China’s assertive maritime claims and the US Navy destroyer USS Lassen even conducted a freedom of navigation operation in South China Sea on 27 October 2015. These moves, however, came too late and the insecurity of US allies continues to mount.

While it is difficult to envisage New Delhi dragging itself into the ‘line of fire’ in the South China Sea so soon, Indian apprehensions aren’t just confined to how Beijing will react. New Delhi is simply not as accustomed to geographic compartmentalization as Washington is. For the US, India is a useful partner for providing maritime security, but its views on Pakistan and Afghanistan can be conveniently ignored when required.

And there are no prizes for guessing which of the two—becoming a net security provider in the Indian Ocean and Western Pacific vis-à-vis getting Pakistan to halt terrorism in India—is more politically resonant in New Delhi. Despite the famed bonhomie between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, New Delhi does not hold any leverage over the talks between the Afghanistan government and the Taliban. In fact, the whole process has, so far, been Pakistan-led and Pakistan-owned as opposed to India’s preference for an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned dialogue process.

It is true that the disjunction in Washington’s policy for India’s maritime east and continental west is by design, but that does not make it a good strategy. Washington risks losing the unhedged Indian buy-in for the more important theatre of East Asia just because it has taken a flawed decision of hastily withdrawing from Afghanistan.

The dialogue process with the Taliban has not held up either despite the best efforts of both the US and China. The news of the death of Mullah Omar has resulted in a succession struggle and concomitant fragmentation of the Taliban. Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, the new leader backed by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, has not been able to keep the flock together. In fact, it is not even clearly known whether he is alive or dead. In such a scenario, Obama’s decision of withdrawing the troops has left the fledgling state of Afghanistan on the edge of a precipice.

The transfer of F-16s is an appeasement of the army generals in Rawalpindi. The Pakistan Army is the best support Washington can get at this juncture to get a significant faction of Taliban back to the negotiating table. The long and duplicitous game that Pakistan has played so far on Afghanistan—and it was indulged throughout by Washington itself—has paid off. The US wants to reduce its footprint and yet control the outcomes in Afghanistan and it has no other option than to rely on Pakistan, a “major non-Nato ally". That is, unless Washington reviews its primary assumption—that Pakistan can be cajoled into taking the right decisions—and primary condition of a hasty withdrawal from the ground.

However, the outgoing administration has chosen to exercise the more convenient option. The critical question is: will the F-16s actually help reduce terrorism in India and Afghanistan? And the tragedy is that both Kerry and Obama know the answer too well.

Has Obama got his strategy on Afghanistan completely wrong? Tell us at

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Published: 10 Mar 2016, 10:20 PM IST
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