Earlier this week, defence minister Rajnath Singh held talks with his US counterpart Lloyd Austin and conveyed India’s concerns over the package.
Even defence analysts have raised eyebrows at the deal, wondering why US wants to equip Pakistan — an all-weather ally of China — at a time when ties between Washington and Beijing are at an all-time low.
The deal announced on September 9 has prompted a flurry of speculations too: could it be America’s strategy to use Pakistan’s airspace for counterterror operations; does US want to send a message to India for its close ties with Russia; or is China a factor behind the move?
Here are the possible reasons behind the agreement …
Using Pakistani airspace?
In 2018, then President Donald Trump cancelled $300 million in military aid to Pakistan and accused Islamabad of providing a safe haven to terrorists in a strongly-worded rebuke on Twitter.
Ties between the two nations have remained frosty since then until Washington’s recent decision on F-16s.
Defence analysts are speculating that there could be a possible quid pro quo angle in the deal since US wants to use Pakistan’s airspace to keep Taliban in control and carry out counterterror operations.
“One certainly can’t rule out a quid pro quo involving the [F-16 deal] and the use of Pakistani airspace,” Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia programme at the Wilson Centre, told the South China Morning Post (SCMP).
According to reports, US carried out the assassination of al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul by sending its drones via Pakistani airspace. Islamabad has denied these claims.
Analysis told SCMP that Pakistan is likely assisting US in sending drones to Afghanistan to carry out similar counterterror operations.
“It’s hard to pinpoint the precise nature of that help. But it goes without saying that without some form of Pakistani assistance, the US drone strikes in Afghanistan are hard to pull off,” Abdul Basit, a research fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, told SCMP.
Despite Pakistan’s denial, there is some credibility in these claims.
For one, US would want to maintain its control on Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, albeit remotely, since it pulled its troops out last year. For this, it needs the assistance of neighbouring Pakistan.
Secondly, there is a noticeable change in US policy on Pakistan since former prime minister Imran Khan was ousted and replaced by the Shehbaz Sharif-led dispensation. Khan had boldly claimed how US played a big role in his ouster.
With Sharif at the helm, US has upped its diplomatic outreach with both Pakistan’s powerful military and its new coalition government, SCMP reported. This again fuels the theory that America could be pushing for a more active relationship with Pakistan to pursue its goals in Afghanistan.
Analysts also point out that Pakistan wants to work closely with US to thwart the threat posed by Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).
According to reports, Islamabad is concerned about TTP, which aims to overthrow the country’s government and is an affiliate of the fundamentalist group that’s back calling the shots in Kabul.
Since assuming power last year, the Taliban leaders have drifted away from Pakistan by challenging the status of the Durand Line (Afghan-Pakistan border) and providing a safe haven to TTP, an anti-Pakistan insurgent group which is also known as the Pakistani Taliban.
TTP has launched a wave of terror attacks against Pakistan, killing thousands of Pakistanis over the year.
“Working with US is Pakistan’s best chance against the TTP now if it wants to hit the TTP within Afghanistan, as the group won’t be able to react against US since there’s no US target present in Afghanistan to hit back at,” security analyst Faran Jeffrey, deputy director of the Britain-based Islamic Theology of Counter Terrorism think tank, told SCMP.
A message for India?
There is also talk that Washington could be sending a curt message to India, which is perceived as a close military partner of Russia.
US has been prodding India to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and has often expressed its reservations at New Delhi’s reliance on Russian arms.
Since India has maintained its neutrality on the issue, the deal could be Washington’s way to indirectly jostle India.
However, US has categorically denied these speculations, saying its decision is not designed as a message to India.
“The decision inside the US government around the F-16 issue was made predicated on US interests associated with our defence partnership with Pakistan which is primarily focused on counterterrorism and nuclear security and as the (Defence) Secretary Lloyd Austin made clear to (Defence) Minister Rajnath Singh during their call last week, this case did not include any upgrades or munitions,” Dr Ely Ratner, assistant secretary of defence for Indo-Pacific security affairs, said.
Ratner said US wants to maintain transparency with India and keep its position clear on Washington’s “limited security partnership with Islamabad”.
The China factor?
US has maintained close military ties with Pakistan since its independence, until the relationship hit choppy waters in recent years.
The ties plunged to an all-time low after Trump’s funding freeze in 2018, pushing Pakistan further into China’s embrace.
However, Pakistan still recognised the importance of keeping America close even as it pursued its close ties with China.
When ousted PM Khan had accused Washington of conspiring his downfall, Pakistan army chief General Qamar Bajwa struck a discordant note and reminded people of his country’s “long history of excellent and strategic relationship with US”.
Though Pakistan has acquired its J10-C fighter jets and Type 054A/P frigates from China, Beijing has shown some reluctance in selling high-end military hardware to Islamabad.
“China’s reluctance to sell high-end military hardware to Pakistan represented an opportunity for the US which the latter has exploited by giving something in return for counterterrorism cooperation in Afghanistan,” Basit told SCMP.
Plus, with US and India looking to scale up their military cooperation to counter China, it will be strategically important for Washington if Islamabad’s military ties with Beijing remain limited.
(With inputs from agencies)