President Bush notified the US Congress on March 25, 2005, of the intention of his administration to clear the sale of F-16 aircraft to Pakistan. If there is no opposition from the Congress within a month, the company manufacturing the aircraft could start negotiations with the
government of Pakistan on the sale. Before notifying the Congress, he reportedly informed Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of his decision.
Unidentified US spokesmen, who briefed the press subsequently, indicated that the deal, when signed, would involve the sale of 24 F-16s. In the late 1980s, the US government had cleared the sale of 32 F-16s to Pakistan. The government of Pakistan had placed orders for the aircraft and paid the money in advance. When the planes were about to be delivered in 1990, the Larry Pressler Amendment was invoked against Pakistan for clandestinely producing a nuclear weapon and all military sales and training to Pakistan were suspended, including supply of spare parts for the equipment sold and delivered to Pakistan before 1990.
After a visit by Mrs.Benazir Bhutto, the then Prime Minister, to the US in 1995, the Clinton Administration encouraged the passage of the Brown Amendment by the Congress to lift the ban on the sale of military equipment to Pakistan and the training of Pakistani military officers in the US. After this, the supply of spare parts for the pre-1990 military equipment and the training of Pakistani officers in the US were resumed. Some pre-1990 orders for fresh equipment such as the one for the sale of three P-3 maritime surveillance planes were executed, but the Clinton Administration declined to release the 32 F-16 planes for which Pakistan had already paid. Instead, it had them sold to third countries and re-imbursed to Pakistan--partly in cash and partly in kind (soya beans)--the money which it had already paid for the planes.
The ban on the sale of military equipment and the supply of spare parts was re-imposed after Pakistan carried out its nuclear tests in May,1998. These restrictions were reinforced after the Army, under General Pervez Musharraf, overthrew the then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in October,1999, and seized power. These restrictions were again removed after 9/11 as a quid pro quo for Pakistan's co-operation in the US-led "war" against Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Since then, the Bush Administration has been gradually stepping up the supply of military equipment to Pakistan. The first installment covered spare parts for the equipment supplied in the past including for transport and military aircraft, which had been given to Pakistan before 1990. It also included equipment required by the Pakistan Army and Police for their counter-terrorism operations such as a large number of helicopters and communications equipment. The entire equipment under the first installment was given to Pakistan free of cost.
During Musharraf's visit to Camp David in June,2003, for talks with Bush, a fresh aid package of US $ three billion was announced by Bush. Bush indicated that this aid would be disbursed over a period of five years and that a half of this would be in the form of economic assistance and the remaining half would be military assistance.
He was asked by pressmen during a joint press conference whether this military aid package would also include F-16s. He replied as follows: " Let me just say -- first, let me say, the President is not afraid to bring up the issue of F-16s. He has been a strong advocate for the sale of F-16s to Pakistan. In the package that we discussed, the five-year, $3 billion package, half of that money goes for defense matters, of which the F-16 won't be a part. Nevertheless, we want to work closely with our friend to make sure that the package meets the needs of the Pakistan people. "
The subsequent negotiations on the utilisation of the military aid component of this package were very slow and did not make much progress till October,2004. The US kept the finalisation of the agreement pending till Pakistan stepped up action against the pro-Al Qaeda jihadi terrorists who had taken sanctuary in the South Waziristan area of Pakistan and co-operated in the peaceful conduct of the Presidential elections in Afghanistan.
Musharraf stepped up military operations in South Waziristan, but was unable to capture and deliver Osama bin Laden and his No.2 Ayman al-Zawahiri to the US. However, he effectively prevented the Taliban, based in sanctuaries in Pakistan, from interfering in the Afghan Presidential elections in October,2004. He also facilitated the victory of Hamid Karzai in the first round itself by effectively mobilising the absentee votes of the millions of Pashtuns of Afghan origin living in Pakistan. They got themselves registered as Afghan citizens and reportedly voted for Karzai.
The US reward for Musharraf was not slow in coming. On November 16,2004, the Defense Security and Cooperation Agency notified the Congress of the Administration's intention to provide to Pakistan military equipment worth $1.3 billion, including eight P-3C Orion naval reconnaissance planes possibly with anti-ship and anti-submarine missiles, 2,000 TOW-2A heavy anti-armor guided missiles and the PHALANX Close-In Weapon Systems for ships. This second installment did not have any pretensions of being meant for counter-terrorism operations. Musharraf wanted this equipment for strengthening Pakistan's military capability against India. The Bush Administration knew it, but projected the maritime surveillance planes and equipment as meant for strengthening Pakistan's maritime counter-terrorism capability against Al Qaeda.
The second installment, which was not opposed by the Congress, too did not include the F-16s demanded by Pakistan. After his re-election as the President, Bush has been diluting the focus on Osama bin Laden and increasing the spotlight on Iran in order to neutralise its nuclear capability. Pakistan has acquired added importance in the eyes of the US in this regard. The US intelligence community requires a presence in Pakistani territory for the collection of intelligence about Iran's nuclear installations and for mounting an operation against them, if this becomes necessary. There are clear indications from reliable Pakistani sources (this has been corroborated by Seymour Hersh, the well-known American journalist) that Pakistan has already agreed to this.
The US also required the co-operation of Musharraf in the on-going investigation of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) against Iran on an uranium enrichment facility constructed by it. During a spot inspection, IAEA experts reportedly found that some of the centrifuges in the Iranian facility contained highly enriched uranium, thereby giving rise to a suspicion that Iran might have already started clandestinely producing weapon-grade enriched uranium.
This has been strongly denied by Teheran, which has been claiming that it bought the centrifuges second-hand from an outside party (Pakistan) and that the traces of the enriched uranium found in the Iranian facility might have come from the supplier of the centrifuges. For the last one year, the IAEA has been demanding that Pakistan should hand over to it some of its centrifuges for having them compared with those found in Iran and a sample of its enriched uranium for having it compared with the trace found in the Iranian facility. Till last month. Pakistan was refusing to do so.
Since the beginning of March,2005, Western media reports have been quoting IAEA officials in Vienna as saying that Pakistan has relented and has agreed to give some of the centrifuges from its Kahuta enrichment facility, but this was being denied by Pakistani government spokesmen.
This subject reportedly figured during the talks between the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice with General Musharraf at Islamabad on March 16-17. In a TV interview on March 24, Musharraf announced that Pakistan was considering to send some nuclear centrifuges to Vienna for inspection. "To end the issue once and for all we want to send nuclear centrifuges to Vienna for inspection and the matter is under consideration," he said. However, he did not indicate whether he would also agree to the request of the IAEA for the supply of a sample of enriched uranium from Kahuta. One should not be surprised if he has also agreed to this and if in the coming weeks he wriggles out of the project for the construction of a gas pipeline from Iran to supply gas to Pakistan and India in order to please the US.
Within 24 hours, Bush notified the Congress of his decision to clear the sale of F-16s to Pakistan. Well-informed Pakistani sources say that just as the military package of November last was a lollipop as a reward for Musharraf's co-operation in facilitating the victory of Karzai in the Presidential election, the F-16 lollipop is a reward for his co-operation against Iran.
In the coming months, the USA's main priorities in this region would be winning the so-called war against terrorism and neutralising Iran's nuclear projects. For achieving these objectives, it would continue to need the co-operation of Pakistan. It would, therefore, continue to be impervious to India's concerns.
We should avoid euphoria and illusions over the reported offers of the sale of sophisticated equipment, including F-16s, and nuclear power stations, to India. The US would not hesitate to wriggle out of this offer if it concludes that the supply of this equipment could come in the way of its developing relations with Pakistan.
B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Distinguished Fellow and Convenor, Observer Research Foundation, Chennai Chapter.