ISLAMABAD — The US Congress is reported to have stymied Pakistani efforts to further acquire F-16 fighter jets, according to reports in local media. Analysts say the move could have implications for the bilateral relationship at a sensitive time if the proposed deal stalls altogether.
The deal has apparently been put on hold by Congress in an effort to impede its progress, something the Obama administration is reportedly attempting to reverse.
The news was first reported by Pakistan's 'Dawn' media group on Tuesday, citing local diplomatic and congressional sources. It claimed the moves were being spearheaded by increasingly anti-Pakistani/pro-Indian lawmakers, naming and quoting Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, and Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, Calif., as examples.
The proposed deal was first revealed in November 2015, with a formal FMS notification made in early December.
Considering the forces arrayed against it, Brian Cloughley, former Australian defense attache to Islamabad, said he thinks much uncertainty now surrounds the proposed sale due to Congress' machinations, despite it not being killed completely.
"Congress is well aware of the fact that it is gravely discommoding Pakistan, but has no qualms about that," he said. "The arrangement for supply of the eight aircraft, as proposed, however, is not dead, but it will require a great deal of work by the Administration to revive it — and the White House might not be keen on that."
Similarly, Claude Rakisits, nonresident senior fellow the Atlantic Council's South Asia Center, is not optimistic on the matter, and said he believes congressional opposition could grow.
"The sale of the F-16s is not looking promising," Rakisits said. "And if the sale of the F-16s has now effectively stalled in a Senate dominated by the generally Pakistan-friendly Republican Party, I would have thought that such a sale to go ahead in a possible Democratic-majority Senate following the 2016 congressional elections would be even more unlikely."
He expressed some surprise at the turn of events considering the previous Republican attitude towards Pakistan, plus recent efforts that were helping smooth over past differences.
"That the sale of the F-16s has met such opposition is somewhat surprising given that bilateral relations between the two countries have very much improved lately," Rakisits said. "It has been particularly so since the Pakistan army launched its counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism operations in Pakistan's tribal areas in June 2014. The Pakistan army has been very effective in hunting down the Pakistan and Afghan Taliban fighters. The number of terrorist attacks in Pakistan has dropped dramatically as a result."
Rakisits continued: "President Obama and high-level officials recently hosted separately Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Pakistan's Chief of Army Staff, Gen Raheel Sharif. Both visits went very well."
As a result, Rakisits said "such negative congressional reaction to the sale of the F-16s will come as a deep disappointment to officials in Islamabad."
Pakistan's disappointment is closely linked with events concerning Afghanistan.
"Not only will that be the case because the Pakistan military has been conducting operations against the Haqqani Network hiding in the tribal areas, as repeatedly asked to do so by the Obama administration for years, but also because it has been assisting in trying to get the Afghan peace process back on track. For example, the inaugural quadrilateral meeting of the US, China, Pakistan and Afghanistan on this issue was held in Islamabad on Monday."
Following the recent terrorist attack on an Indian air force base however Obama may not be so enthusiastic in pushing the deal forward.
Should the deal not transpire, Rakisits said it would be "a big mistake on the part of Congress."
"Already Washington's influence in Pakistan is fast diminishing, and has increasingly been the case since the US pulled most of its troops from Afghanistan at the end of 2014" he said. "As a result, and not surprisingly, this has meant that Pakistan has moved deeper and deeper into China's geo-strategic orbit. And the latest $46 billion China Pakistan Economic Corridor project further consolidates Pakistan's long-standing relationship with China."
Deepening Pakistan-China ties should not be a surprise to Washington, however.
"With an eye on a rising China, starting under President Bush and continued under President Obama, Washington has made it very clear that in the long-term India would play a more important role than Pakistan in its geo-strategic calculations for the region," Rakisits said.
The likely result is also well appreciated by Congress, but other factors have overridden these concerns.
"Congress knows the geo-strategic implications of refusing to sell the F-16s to Pakistan but the Indian lobby is very effective. And, quite frankly, Muslims are unfortunately not the flavor-of-the-month in this presidential and congressional election year, and as we know all congressmen and many Republican senators are up for re-election in November," he said.
Pakistan's air force modernization efforts would almost certainly be negatively affected without an F-16 deal.
"It is impossible for any air force to undertake long-term planning for the purposes of national defense policy if there is no guarantee that supply of its main platforms, and replacements, as originally planned, will continue," said Cloughley.
However, Cloughly said he doesn't think the stalled F-16 deal will affect a deal for 15 AH-1Z helicopter gunships announced in April 2015.