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After the F-16 saga

A PREVAILING sense of dj vu across Islamabads ruling circles following the US threat of


withdrawing funds for eight new F-16 fighters may well suggest that Pakistan is missing the
point. Its easy to say we have seen it all before. But its much harder to figure out the lessons
learnt from the past that could be usefully applied to shape future policies in Pakistans best
interest.
Beyond another chapter in a history of ups and downs surrounding Pakistans relations with the
worlds lone superpower lies a failure by Pakistan to carve out the road to preserve and protect
its interests. And beyond matters linked to just foreign policy lies a series of internal trends that
have weakened Pakistan and enhanced its vulnerability to outside pressures.
The jury may still be out on the final outcome of this saga, given the noise from parts of the US
administration seeking close ties with Islamabad. The bottom line is indeed a familiar one. Now
that US interests in the Pak-Afghan region have shrunk following the December 2014
withdrawal of the bulk of US troops from Afghanistan, Washingtons need for a tight alliance
with next-door Pakistan has been diluted.
One key lesson from a birds eye view of the history of US-Pakistan relations suggests a key gap.
In seeking to pursue close ties with the US, Pakistan has historically relied on a personalitydriven approach between key decision-makers on both sides rather than a sustainable relationship
based on broad-based and long-term interests.

Pakistan has failed to carve out the road to preserve its interests.

The personal relationship between former president Gen Pervez Musharraf and former US
president George W. Bush presents a telling case in point. The former, Pakistans military ruler,
and the latter, the post 9/11 US president, found it mutually convenient to embrace one another in
the battle against Al Qaeda and the Taliban.
For Musharraf, valuable US military and economic aid helped to bolster a regime that lacked
global legitimacy, while Bush found it convenient to embrace Pakistan as a key ally for the US
war in Afghanistan.
From Pakistans vantage point, little appears to have been achieved by way of either organising
the countrys migrant community in the US to work in the interest of their motherland, or indeed
a diversification of ties beyond the military dimension.

Though US officials point towards a series of past economic interventions to Pakistans benefit,
the point becomes debatable on the streets of Pakistan. For ordinary Pakistanis, US assistance
has helped more to bolster one regime after another in spite of credibility gaps, rather than to
benefit ordinary folk.
Arguably, past US assistance in fact took Pakistan away from the ideal of self-reliance in key
areas that would allow the country to fend for itself. Going forward, the cause of national
security needs to be built as much with new weapon systems including fighter planes as the
matter of fixing Pakistans out-of-sync bookkeeping.
In contrast to its status as the newest member of the worlds exclusive nuclear club, Pakistan
suffers from continued lethargy surrounding its ability to begin paying its own bills. The failure
to fix national tax revenues which have chronically remained behind target is indeed directly
linked to such national choices as the purchase of modern military hardware.
The opponents of Pakistan in Washington who have stalled the deal and tied a resolution to
matters like the release of Dr Shakil Afridi, realised the tool of Pakistans economic vulnerability
working to their advantage. With the countrys national revenues lagging behind target, its
difficult to imagine exactly how Pakistan can comfortably afford to ditch one fighter aircraft
option with a subsidy in place, in favor of another at the full market price. Dependence on
precious foreign assistance rather than national resources lies at the heart of the challenge.
Going forward, the issue is not necessarily one of a lack of choices. Noises in recent months
from the community of global arms dealers have suggested that Russia may be ready to sell a
batch of its SU-35 fighter planes to Pakistan, following a well-publicized deal of the same
between Moscow and Beijing.
And the strides made by Chinas own fighter aircraft production facilities in recent years along
with the close collaboration with Pakistan, offers yet another opportunity to be pursued if
needed. Though US technology may be more advanced by comparison to some of the other
systems available to Pakistan, that must not necessarily work as a disincentive.
The set of US sanctions under the much-publicized Pressler Amendment in 1990 worked to
withhold a batch of F-16s signed by Washington for sale to Pakistan. Though the F-16 supply
line was resumed more than a decade later, Pakistan in partnership with China successfully
began manufacturing the JF-17. The ultimate question is just one: can Pakistan learn to stand on
its feet with or without resolving the latest F-16 riddle with the US.
The writer is an Islamabad-based journalist.
farhanbokhari@gmail.com
Published in Dawn, May 13th, 2016