The PAF and the Americans certainly tried to create the perfect photo op with the US Viceregal ambassador Ms Patterson and the Air Chief Rao Qamar smiling for the cameras at Jacobabad air base – once Pakistan’s sove-reign territory but now controlled effectively by the US military. All this apparent bonhomie was the delivery of the first three F-16s to the buyer – the Pakistan Air Force from the US manufacturers. The official press release was almost nauseating in the expression of goodwill towards the Americans and the joy the PAF felt at getting these planes. But behind this entire facade, many things are amiss and all concerned Pakistanis should seriously be worried.
To begin with, let us remember that we have paid a hefty price for these planes – $1.4 billion along with another $1.3 billion for the upgrade of our existing fleet of F-16s – the few we did manage to get delivery of and for which we have had to scour the globe for spares since the US refused. Luckily we still have a few gutsy and committed allies! So far only three planes in the new order have been delivered though the official spin is four! Let us hope we get all 18 but the past record is certainly dismal. After all, not only did the US keep our money and refused to give us the planes, the manufacturer had the audacity to charge us parking fees and then all we landed up with was wheat and soya beans – not much to bolster our defences on, but certainly a healthy contribution to the US farmers’ pockets! Why should it be any different this time? So far the US track record has not shown a change for the better – given how they are still holding up our dues in connection with the Coalition Support Fund. That too is not aid but payment for services rendered unquestioningly to US goals by the Pakistani state – and at great cost to the Pakistani nation. So let us hope the Pakistan Air Force has learnt some lessons from the past and built in some cast-iron guarantees but it would be worthwhile for our parliamentarians to demand access to the new F-16 purchase agreement. If there are no firm guarantees of supply, we may be seeing a repeat of our past F-16 history all over again. After all, the deal at the time was also made when we were the frontline state for the US in another war in Afghanistan!
Nor is it just fears of whether we will once again lose our money and end up lining the pockets of some marginalised but politically powerful US lobby such as farmers! A much bigger issue is the terms and conditions which the US insists are attached to the new sales agreement and which our Air Chief denies when he declares that the PAF can use these planes as it sees fit – in other words against any contingency and any enemy. Unfortunately, while expounding on how these new planes will add to the PAF’s capability, the Air Chief focused primarily on the war against “extremists” – something the US also continues to say when explaining the sale of these planes to Pakistan. In fact, the US Assistant Secretary of State, Robert Blake, went especially to New Delhi recently to inform the Indians that the new F-16s will not be used against India. Now how can the US give this assurance unless the Pakistanis have made some foolish commitment in writing to this effect? After all, if there is a conflict with India why would we not want to use our most efficient weapon systems? Have the Indians given any similar commitments vis-à-vis Pakistan in terms of missile defence systems they are acquiring from the US? Of course not! And the US has not assuaged our fears on this count either. Why the Pakistani nation should be concerned is because there have been reports that the US is sending along its own technicians who will ensure that these planes are not used anywhere except against our own people – the “extremists”. TheNation had published this news story (which the US has not denied) and aroused the wrath of the PAF and its PR man who now refuses to answer any questions on the F-16s for us – which he does not seem to realise is his loss not ours!
As it is, according to Indian and US sources, during last month’s Indo-US strategic dialogue the US administration made it clear that the US would deliver the F-16s to Pakistan under tough conditions which including assurances that these planes would not be used in any conflict against India. With the F-16s US Air Force personnel would also arrive and supervise not only the air base where these planes would be deployed but also the operations carried out by the PAF against “Taliban” and “Al-Qaeda” – as if the ordinary inhabitant of the FATA has his political identity displayed on his forehead! According to reports the logistics, management and control of these F-16s would be with US personnel. So why have we paid for these machines if the US will control them? Clearly the PAF needs to prove this is not the case and that can only be done if the actual agreements are made public. After all, this is a lot of our taxpayers money and we have a right to know what deals are being made with it – especially since it involves our security from the external threat.
Under these circumstances, it is also worrying to think that all these fighting machines will be used for bombing our own territories and people – and who will then identify how many “extremists” have been killed and how many innocent civilians. Surely our military should realise that indiscriminate killings merely create more resentment and extremism and the reaction to the drones should be a lesson for the PAF. To fight extremism you need paramilitary forces for law and order and politico-economic strategies for isolating these terrorists from the rest of the population. For $1.4 billion the poor citizens expect a more credible nuclear deterrence and protection against the external threat. To hear the Air Chief, Rao Qamar simply go on and on about adding to the capability for fighting extremists and hardly utter any word about the enhancement of delivery systems against the external enemy was distressing and frankly unacceptable. If the new F-16s are to be used primarily against our own territory and people, then the $1.4 billion would have been better spent in development projects for the FATA which would have given far quicker and better results against extremism. Or are we so fearful of the Americans that we cannot speak plainly about our defence and strategic needs? The symbolism of receiving the planes at Jacobabad air base, which the US military still controls, has not been lost on the rest of us Pakistanis. It seems they are already under US control on Pakistani soil. As if to appease us, the US has given out that it will provide fresh water and other facilities for the local people – but that also means to continue its control of this base – which one was told the US had vacated! Are we Pakistanis so easily purchasable by the US?
Meanwhile, India continues to update its air force with no conditionalities being imposed by any of its foreign suppliers. It is planning to upgrade over 50 of its forward airbases – primarily targeting Pakistan but also China. The Indian Air Chief Naik recently revealed the jointly produced advanced stealth bomber being built with the Russians. It is also planning to buy 126 multirole fighters and has earmarked $11 billion for this purpose. And no one is limiting India’s use of these systems. Only Pakistan falls prey to these debilitating condi-tionalities. Unless some concrete and written texts of agreements are made public, one can sadly say the PAF has once again fallen prey to US diktat for some expensive planes which would truly have acted as a force multiplier within our nuclear deterrence, but which otherwise will become expensive white elephants and only the Pakistani nation will be the victim – once again.