Around the same time that negotiations for a 123 Agreement to take forward the Indo-US nuclear deal were entering their final lap, Lieutenant General Gary North, the air force commander in the United States of America’s central air command, arrived in Pakistan on a mission that was as sensitive for Islamabad as the nuclear deal was for New Delhi.
General North flew into Sargodha, a Pakistani air force base, on one of two F-16 planes that the Bush administration was giving the PAF after several years of wrangling between Islamabad and Washington, involving three successive US presidents. The planes touched down in Sargodha after an eight-hour flight and were ceremonially received by George W. Bush’s new envoy in Islamabad, Anne Patterson, and other US officials, after which they were handed over to PAF’s Air Chief Marshal Tanvir Mehmood Ahmed. The chief of Pakistan’s air staff made it a point to underline the fact that the new fleet of F-16s that his air force was acquiring were virtual gifts to General Pervez Musharraf from the Pentagon. “These are exceptionally used aircraft and are being given to us at very nominal prices,” the Air Chief Marshal said at the ceremony. Ten more such planes will be given to the PAF before mid-2008. An additional 16 planes are expected to join the PAF fleet, which will then have 60 plus F-16s. Pakistan has plans to expand this number further by another 18 aircraft.
What is interesting about these transactions is not that the Americans are willing to hand over such dangerously offensive weaponry to General Musharraf despite the worsening instability in Pakistan. The real surprise is that the F-16 deliveries to India’s worst enemy hardly caused any ripples in New Delhi or anywhere else on this side of the border with Pakistan. Without such a change in New Delhi, the Indo-US nuclear deal, especially the 123 Agreement to operationalize it, would not have been possible.
When the Americans decided in March 2005 to sell a new batch of F-16s to Pakistan, overturning their earlier decision to dishonour even sales which had been contracted and paid for by Islamabad, that decision caused serious divisions within the United Progressive Alliance government,which had been in power for barely a year. The conventional wisdom in South Block has always been to oppose any military sale to Pakistan by any country. Stories about the tactics used by the ministry of external affairs in the past to stop arms acquisitions by the Generals in Rawalpindi — some successful, others unsuccessful — could easily fill a book.
But in March 2005, Ronen Sen, who had been appointed a few months earlier as ambassador to Washington by the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, was convinced that New Delhi should simply ignore the Bush administration’s new effort to re-arm Pakistan, which was conveyed to Singh by Bush in a telephone conversation on the eve of Holi that year. Sen’s thinking was out of the box and caused consternation in South Block, which was used to a different line for at least half a century. In the prime minister’s office too, there were serious doubters about the wisdom of a break with the past, which was being advocated by Sen.
In retrospect, as Indians savour the success of the negotiations that have now led to a 123 Agreement mostly to India’s advantage, Sen’s unconventional thinking on Pakistan is seen as one of the vital chains that brought the Indo-US nuclear deal to its high gear and its current phase of implementation. It gave those in the Bush administration — like the vice president Dick Cheney, defence secretary Robert Gates and his predecessor Donald Rumsfeld — the necessary room for manoeuvre in garnering support for a nuclear policy that was as unconventional in Washington as the move in New Delhi to ignore America’s efforts to rearm the Generals in Rawalpindi.
The change advocated by Sen was the logical extension of an earlier initiative by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government to eliminate Pakistan’s overarching shadow from every aspect of Indian foreign policy. It used to be said until the National Democratic Alliance government came into office in 1998 that India has no bilateral relations, only trilateral ones: India’s relations with another country depended on the state of that country’s ties with Pakistan. The Vajpayee government tried to delink Pakistan from India’s external affairs, but was only moderately successful because attitudes in South Block were not easy to transform.
In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, recognizing that Musharraf’s opportunistic dumping of taliban had fooled the Americans into accepting the wily General as an ally in the fight against terrorism, Brajesh Mishra, then national security adviser, stopped telling Bush administration officials how evil Pakistan was or that it was the fountainhead of global terrorism. Mishra recognized that it was a sheer waste of effort, and that doing so could actually be counterproductive for what India wanted to gain from its ties with the US.
Yet, what Mishra was doing was quite tame compared to what Sen told Singh in 2005. For many people on Raisina Hill, the seat of power in New Delhi, it was pure heresy to suggest that India would not care whether the Pentagon was rearming Pakistan or that New Delhi was only interested in what was there for India in its relations with the US.
Sen argued forcefully that whatever New Delhi said or did when it came to Pakistan would have no effect on the Bush administration and that they were determined to forge ahead in strengthening their bilateral ties with Islamabad in a wide variety of spheres. Too much of lecturing the Bush administration on Musharraf could cause fatigue in Washington and have an adverse impact on Indo-US relations. The ambassador eventually won the argument and brought about a change in policy in New Delhi.
In the long run, it will be interesting to see where this new approach by India on US-Pakistan relations leads everyone concerned. The Americans will not admit in public that within their establishment an ever-increasing number of people whose inputs are valuable to decision-making in Washington now agree with India’s assessment of what Musharraf — and Pakistan in general — is all about. Indeed, the effects of not lecturing the Americans on Pakistan are clearly positive: they are now ever more curious about what New Delhi really thinks about various issues in Pakistan, as that country hurtles further down the path of disaster.