Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The farce of Pakistan's counterterrorist F-16s

This past weekend, the U.S. delivered to Pakistan the first three F-16s in an 18-plane foreign military sales purchase. The deal has gotten a lot of headlines as a visible example of the U.S. government's increasing willingness to support Pakistani military modernization in exchange for Islamabad's support in fighting terrorism on its northwest frontier. Some commentary on the subject appears today in the New York Times' At War blog.

Pakistanis are fascinated, if not obsessed, with F-16 fighter jets.

It is the best fighting aircraft in the fleet of the Pakistan air force, allowed to be flown by only the country’s best pilots. Video of F-16 fighter aircraft roaring through the skies figures prominently in the air force’s inspirational anthems.

The sale of F-16s to Pakistan was suspended in the 1990s as an indication of the deteriorating relationship between the countries.

A couple of years ago, Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan, who was then heading the media wing of the military, stressed in an interview that if America wanted to improve its image, it should expedite the delivery of F-16s.

It wasn’t just a simple wish of the military boys for their toys. The aircraft also serve as an effective diplomatic and public-relations tool.

The blog glosses over what really happened to interrupt the relationship: Pakistan developed a nuclear program. Pakistan already had 40 F-16s they'd purchased from the U.S., and had plans to buy a lot more. Then Islamabad's scientific adventurism not only put a halt to major planned materiel sales, but ended U.S.-Pakistan military-to-military contacts, including educational exchanges and other professional interactions.

This, of course, was kind of a problem when we showed up post-9/11 looking for pro-America senior officers in the Pakistani military. Previous generations had sent their best and brightest to study at the Command and General Staff College and senior service colleges, where they built personal relationships with their peers in the U.S. military.

What's that got to do with F-16s, you're wondering? Well, just like mil-to-mil contacts, materiel sales are a part of a broader, comprehensive relationship. These days everyone wants to talk about "building partner capacity," training and equipping our friends and allies to fight more capably so that we won't have to. But security cooperation -- that is, pretty much all the international contacts and activities executed by our Defense Department -- is bigger than capacity building: it also helps to build relationships and ensure access, and contributes to the broader goal (theoretically) of winning support for U.S. policies and actions.

Of course, that's not going to stop anyone from tossing out some lines about capacity, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, and so on:

Officials say the aircraft will be used for precision strikes against militant hide-outs in the country’s tribal regions straddling the border with Afghanistan.

Sure they will!

Seriously, it's ok to talk about the other stuff, the access, the relationships, the confidence-building, the assuring of allies, the enhancement to regional security. And to be fair, Ambassador Patterson's statement pretty much covers that stuff, too:

The office of Anne W. Patterson, the United States ambassador in Islamabad, issued a statement Sunday calling the weekend induction of first three of the 18 F-16s ‘a historic milestone’ of relationship between Pakistan and the United States. It was, the statement said, “both a symbolic and tangible demonstration of our strong partnership and the U.S. intent to stand beside Pakistan over the long-term as an important ally and friend.”

Some of this stuff is just to make people feel good, and that's ok too. Now, as Madhu has noted many times, the link between intent and effect is a little bit obscure to us. We're not exactly sure how all the confidence-building and back-patting we do through exercises or materiel transfers or exchange programs really impacts state action.

But isn't it nice, when the balloon goes up, to be able to pick up the phone to the guy you sat next to at Leavenworth (the Fort, not the prison) for a year, and to be able to remind him of the close cooperative relationship your countries and militaries share?


  1. You know, I think people are interested. I just think they agree (in this case). This is certainly making sense to me.

  2. GWOT incorporates Pakistan's arms race with India... huh. Hell, I'd like to give India 18 F-16s for a single BRAHMOS system.

  3. I am skeptical of most forms of aid and I abhor poor governance. The reason I'm saying all of that is that I don't want people to think I am some sort of anti-Pakistan bigot. I'm not: I just think we Americans should get it into our heads that changing societies or cultures is not so easy, and it's not even our place to do that.

    In the spirit of goodwill toward ALL, I give you the following:

    India-Pakistan goodwill messages:

    See, I mean well. I don't want us throwing good money after bad, or making the situation worse. That's all I'm saying.

  4. And I might add: the Indians are awfully tolerant. Think about it - we are buying short term gain for us, which is likely going to lead to long term pain. Mostly for the Indians, but there is no reason to believe that the money "saved" by Pakistan won't be spent on funding groups whose interests are opposite our own.


    Back to the goodwill messages! B. Raman has actually proposed some concrete confidence building measures between, say, the police of India and the police of Pakistan. And that dude's a hawk, I'm guessing, but I'm not Indian and don't know where he fits into the Indian political framework.