The United States and Pakistan are reinventing their ties, after years of thaw in their relationship, with Pak Army chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa’s recent trip to the US being seen as a bid to reset the relations. Bajwa’s 5-day visit came on the heels of a $450 million US package for “technical and logistical service” to maintain Pakistan’s ageing F-16 fleet.
India registered a strong protest with the US against the deal, over both the substance and timing of the US' decision, with Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar raising the issue – in public, as well as in private meetings with US officials.
US-Pak Ties on the Mend: Why Now?
Geopolitical and foreign policy watchers are of the opinion that these two events should be seen in the backdrop of other efforts by the two countries to mend ties. The appointment of the new US ambassador to Pakistan, some high-profile visits from both sides, the announcement of a F16 sustenance package to Pakistan, Bajwa’s visit to Washington DC, and the US Ambassador’s visit to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) are significant developments in terms of the US-Pak relations.
Last year's withdrawal of the American forces from Afghanistan and the recent transition of power in Pakistan are the reasons largely attributed to the recent headway in talks between the US and Pakistan.
“First, it has to do with geopolitics of the region, especially Afghanistan,” Kamran Bokhari, a Washington-based security affairs expert, and the director of analytical development at New Lines Institute, says, adding, “The US interest is maintaining balance of power in any region, especially in south Asia, since they have withdrawn from Afghanistan, and they don’t want a weak Pakistan.”
Major General (Retd.) Shashi Asthana, a New Delhi-based Global Strategic and Defence Analyst, tells The Quint that the US move is aimed at getting a footprint again in the region after withdrawing from Afghanistan.
“The US is exploiting a situation which can give them certain strategic advantages in this area, because they have lost out strategic footprints in the AfPak region. They are trying to make some gains in the region."Major General (Retd.) Shashi Asthana
The second reason, Bokhari opines, has to do with Pakistan’s domestic politics.
“Imran Khan, with his anti-American rhetoric is now out of power. There is a transition taking place and the US is signalling to Pakistani military that we can do business with you.”Kamran Bokhari
Michael Kugelman, the Deputy Director of the Asia Programme at the Washington-based Wilson Center, agrees, saying the change in government in Pakistan has helped reset ties with the US. “The new government [led by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif] has very overtly called for better relations with the US whereas the last few months of [Imran] Khan era was very difficult for Washington to make that relationship work,” he observes.
The new government in Pakistan has provided a healthier space for discussion between the two sides to explore the greater cooperation, Kugelman tells The Quint.
He suggests that while these two developments are attributable to a broader effort to strengthen the US-Pak relationship, we should not read too much into the timing of Bajwa visit.
Kugelman also holds that the visit of Donald Blome, the US ambassador to Pakistan, to PoK is significant as it implies an evolving US-Pakistan relationship.
Asthana, however, says that the more notable is Blome’s comments referring to PoK as “AJK [Azad Jammu and Kashmir].”
F16 Deal: Quid Pro Quo?
There are also suggestions from several quarters that the F16 deal was announced as a reward for an action of Pakistan that has benefitted the US. While they are only assumptions, security experts believe it is most likely related to Afghanistan, where the US has no presence since its exit last year while Islamabad holds considerable influences due to its relations with the Taliban.
"Given the nature of the US-Pakistan relations, which is very transactional, I assume there must have been a quid pro quo. This proposed deal was announced because something that Pakistan has done to benefit US security interests."Michael Kugelman
Asthana goes one step further and says that the F16 deal is a reward to Pakistan for providing help to the US in killing Ayman al-Zawahiri. “It is alleged that Pakistan gave the US information about Zawahiri as well as the airspace for the strike. So, Pakistan also needed to be rewarded,” Asthana says.
"It is another form of security assistance as a quid pro quo for using their strategic space. It’s a payment for using their strategic space."Major General (Retd.) Shashi Asthana
Any resetting of ties between the US and Pakistan has larger geopolitical implications in south Asia, especially for India. Public posturing by India signals that New Delhi is worried. The three major concerns (or questions) that India may have are:
F16 deal provides better maintenance of Pakistan Air Force’s fleet.
Blome referring to PoK as AJK signals that the US is no more concerned about India's sentiments on Kashmir.
What are the long-term implications of US-Pak ties on India-US relationship?
Bokhari thinks India does not have much to worry about, yet, as this is just the beginning of the process. "US-Pak ties have been strained and it will require considerable amount of time to rebuild those ties. There is nothing for India to be worried,” he tells The Quint.
Kugelman also suggests that we should not overstate by how much US-Pakistan relations have improved or how much will improve.
On the F16 package, Bokhari says India made a big deal of it.
"The F16 fleet goes back to 1990s, and the deal is just for its maintenance. From India’s point of view, they know that Pakistan has x number of planes, but they will now be able to maintain them. If India has any concern, it is mostly tactical concern, now they have to account for that. But from the strategic point of view, nothing has changed."Kamran Bokhari
“The Indian Air Force, on the other hand, has access to a variety of platforms, including British, French, and Russian, and there is even a talk of F18s from the US. I don’t think there is anything to worry,” he goes on to say.
With the F16 package, Asthana says, Pakistan gets a “little bit of boost as far as their military capacity building is concerned.”
“Irrespective of what the US says, F16s can only be used against India. Any additional capacity building of Pakistan goes against the security interest of India."Major General (Retd.) Shashi Asthana
Kugelman says while the F16 deal may not mean much on its own, India’s reaction is understandable, as the fourth generation jets have long been a flashpoint.
The F16s have not been used for the purposes the US meant them to be used for. They have been using it for purposes that could seriously impact India’s interests."Michael Kugelman
On Blome’s visit to PoK, Kugelman posits, “The US is not changing its position on Kashmir policy. Washington must have recognised that it would have upset India, but it would not antagonise them.”
“The consistent US position on Kashmir has been that it is for Pakistan and India to work out, that position is not going to change,” he adds.
While a change in terminology may not lead to a change in policy, it means that the US is less concerned about India's sentiments on the issue.
Asthana says the language used by Blome is against India’s interests. “Raking of Kashmir issue is also against our interest. Although it doesn’t make much of a difference,” he says. “It is a case of concern in a manner that it touches India’s sensitivity unnecessarily. But does it change the ground position in Kashmir? The answer is no. Does it change the ongoing relations between India and the US appreciably? The answer is no.”
The former Indian Army general says both the F16 deal and the US ambassador’s visit to PoK are issues are of concern to India. But they are, he adds, are incident-specific events and not policy-specifci events.
Kugelman opines that India only has a reason to worry if the F16 deal is followed by a resumption in US security assistance to Pakistan, or other US-Pakistan security deals. “Unless that happens, I don’t think the India-US relationship will be impacted,” he asserts, adding that New Delhi's relationship with Washington is much more robust and broad.
“I don’t think that India should be overly concerned for several reason. Most of the developments in the US-Pakistan relationship are focused on non-security issues. These are not developments that should be seen as posing a threat to India,” he propounds. “These developments in US-Pak relations are not going to impact India’s relations with the US in a big way.”