by Shome Basu
The military balance between India and Pakistan has always been a matter of great debate. With the presence of China, a global power bordering both the countries, the equation in the subcontinent becomes more serious.
China now places itself as the powerful political and military player globally as was evident after the Anchorage talks in March 2021 in Alaska where the China-US negotiations broke down as China wanted to be seen as equal to the US which the US is unwilling to acknowledge. With China’s muscular power, wolf diplomacy and Asian hegemony – especially in Taiwan straits, Ladakh and Arunachal – becoming more evident, the concerns are increasing.
For India, the biggest fear is that Pakistan remains China’s all-weather friend while the US is also its friend, though on as-needed basis, especially when it comes to the war on terror in the region.
One has to step back and dive into the 75 years of dirty politics and diplomacy steered by various state leaders of both India and Pakistan to gain the best for their national needs and international recognition. The recent visits of the foreign ministers of India and Pakistan to the US had answers to many questions lurking for years.
1947: How it All Began
It was in 1947 when both India and Pakistan were scrambling over Kashmir that the intrusion by Pakistan’s tribal raiders formally turned into a war. Enemies since birth, Pakistan inherited what British India left for it and the independent India gave much less resources to it when it came to defence and strategic affairs. India, being a bigger country, had more resources and people spread around its vast land.
Due to such a poor state of military equipment, Karachi (then capital of Pakistan) asked the US for support. Harry S Truman, who emerged as a powerful US president who led the country in WW2 (and ordered the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings), could not decide whom to support. As a gesture, Truman offered $10million economic package to Pakistan, while neglecting PM Liaquat Ali, and invited Jawaharlal Nehru who was seen as the emerging leader even by the prestigious Time Magazine.
Liaqat Ali openly said that he would like to ally with the USSR (America’s worst enemy with Stalin as the boss). The US responded and Liaquat Ali was invited for a tour of the US.
During the Korean War, Pakistan sent tons of wheat as food supplies for the US forces fighting the Communists and Liaquat Ali condemned North Korea.
In the summer of 1951, Pakistan was getting worried as India was building up around East Pakistan. Riots in East Pakistan the year before had developed concern within the Indian government. Liaquat Ali was shot dead by an Afghan assailant at a rally in Rawalpindi. Pakistan was soon in the grip of its first military rule as General Ayyub Khan, a Sandhurst alumnus, took power.
The Oval office changed with Dwight Eisenhower taking over in 1953. Nehru visited the US and spent crucial time with Eisenhower, who was more of a war veteran than a president. At the Eisenhower’ farm in Gettysburg in Pennsylvania, the two leaders discussed the Korean War and Tibet. Nehru urged support for a permanent membership in UNSC to People’s Republic of China (PRC), instead of the Republic of China, as it was an emerging country and a day was not far when the PRC would grab attention. So it was better to bring it on a responsible chair in the UNSC. When Pakistan was discussed, Nehru was as caustic as he could be while putting on record his displeasure about the US selling arms to Pakistan.
But what changed in those few years that suddenly the country that was not seen as an important player in south Asia acquired attention and interest of the US? In 1954 and 1955, Pakistan joined the multilateral alliances of SENTO and CEATO consecutively. It became an opportunity to build alliances and gain military and economic benefit. The charter of the alliances said that it would provide its partners with the latest military equipment and economic resources to fight the communists wherever there was a chance for them to rise. In this respect, smaller countries like Thailand and New Zealand got similar benefits, but Pakistan tactfully used it to its best because what was waiting to happen in the years to come made their geography pivotal to strategic affairs.
Meanwhile, such alliances had many costs. The US started exploiting countries and Pakistan remained no exception. As usual, the guards at the White House changed again but the sovereign idea was as robust as it could be. Back in Pakistan, Ayyub Khan held elections which were an eyewash while John F. Kennedy, a successful lawyer, became the President of America in 1961. Within six months of Kennedy’s tenure, an ambitious plan at ‘Bay of Pigs’ in Cuba, a failed CIA coup attempt, brought a dark patch on the new Democrat government.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, President Ayyub Khan received an invitation to Washington. Khan, with his daughter Begum Nasir Akthar Aurangzeb, visited the US capital. Allen Dulles, the CIA chief, and Khan knew each other as the former had visited Karachi as part of the SEATO conference in 1957. The eyes now were on Pakistan as Dulles, a hawk, had plans. The geography of both the pieces of Pakistan – East and West – was used by the US reconnaissance U-2 planes against USSR. Peshawar and Kurmitala (near Dacca) were used as the bases. All that Pakistan had in mind was to gain support for Kashmir from the US and the UK at the United Nations and use its military might against India at an appropriate time.
Thus, the flow of latest arms began into Pakistan and the morale of the forces quadrupled. From being impoverished in their military systems in comparison to India, Pakistan was now equipped with the best possible military hardware. Ayyub was hosted by Kennedy, not at the White House, but at Mount Vernon, where the founder of America, George Washington, had resided. Only once in history was such a dinner arranged beside the river Potomac where President Kennedy and Khan had talks about economic package and arms deal and possibly a word was given by Kennedy that the US won’t help India with military hardware in its need.
All was happening under the eagle eyes of Dulles sitting tables away and keeping a watch. Ayyub was happy with such assurance and he returned to Pakistan. A year later, with China launching an attack on India, Nehru looked towards Kennedy. Kennedy, personally fond of Nehru, forgot the assurance he gave to Ayyub Khan and provided military hardware assistance to India. Pakistan was understandably upset.
That apart, Pakistan was now part of the US-USSR cold war and it was the beginning of the start of its Military Industrial Complex. But when time came, Kennedy acted his way. Dulles, a reader of Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, called the shots. Later, mostly all the US presidents – except Jimmy Carter – were fond of Pakistan.
Fate got Pakistan again to the spot. Ayyub was long gone while another dictator had taken over with a brief spell of democracy in Pakistan. In between, Ayyub’s misadventure with operations Gibraltar in Kashmir and Grand Slam over International Border was the showcase of military prowess against India in 1965. The Indian army fought to its best and a ceasefire was finally declared.
The Zia Era
On 5 July 1977, Ge Zia-ul-Haq came to power through a bloodless coup overthrowing Prime Minister Bhutto’s government and throwing him in jail and finally executing him in 1979. Year 1979 also saw the Iran revolution that ousted the Shah of Iran with the American embassy coming under siege. An anti-American rhetoric was building up in the Shia revolution led by Ayatollah Khomeini, whom the US saw as the number two enemy after the communists. On the other hand, the USSR was trying to put a puppet government in Afghanistan and had rolled its tanks to capture the land to make it a part of the communist world.
The US was enraged. The solution was Pakistan. Strategically, Pakistan was now an important ally. The CIA now planned and the Pakistan’s spy agency, ISI, became the courier of weapons for the mujahideen groups fighting against the USSR in Afghanistan. But what was Pakistan to gain from it all? It was the huge pipeline of arms and money siphoned with no accountability as the CIA was waging one of its largest covert operations.
During the course of the 1980s under Zia, Pakistan got the deal to have fighter jets from the US. The relationship was at its best as the US felt that the USSR needed to be taught a lesson. Meanwhile, Kahuta nuclear facility in Pakistan was under suspicion as it was seen to be building a bomb – a nuclear bomb.
Larry Pressler, a Congressman, had designed a format which looked into the countries that possessed nuclear arms and wouldn’t be provided any US aid and also could be sanctioned under the act. It was conceived in 1990, a year after the USSR rolled back the last of its tanks from Afghanistan, putting an end to its largest defeat in the cold war era. The F-16s that Pakistan wanted to procure were made and parked in the hangers of the desert of Arizona, but barred to be sold to Pakistan because of the suspicion of its link with terrorists and nuclear arms manufacturing.
The September 11 attacks again changed the world forever and, with it, Pakistan’s fate as well. The US reiterated to ISI chief Mahmood Ahmad (who was touring the Capitol) that “you are either with us or against us.” It was enough for Pervez Musharraf to choose US over remaining neutral. Many refer to it as someone else’s war.
While the relation between the US and Pakistan was running rough, at times, Pakistan got itself out of the sanctions despite the 1998 nuclear bomb test in the Chagtai hills in Baluchistan.
Now, the F-16 fighter jet programme got a new life and, from 2001, $25 billion was provided as assistance. Military hardware was also revamped as part of the assistance in the war on terror. Now Pakistan was armed with F-16s, the most advanced machines in the sky. Archenemy India had the Russian Sukhoi and MiGs, which were less advanced till India procured Rafale jets from France.
As for the continuity of the F-16 jets, the fighters need servicing and upgradation. This September, the US government under President Joe Biden approved $450 million for Pakistan’s F-16 programme which sparked debate among the strategic community, especially in India.
The debate was sparked when India’s External Affairs Minister, S Jaishankar, met his counterpart Anthony Blinken in the US and expressed displeasure on the recent package to Pakistan for the F-16 upgradation. Jaishankar was on his tour to New York (UNGA) and Washington DC while Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto along with PM Shehbaz Sharif was on a similar annual tour. America has an alliance with India in the Indo-Pacific and the QUAD, where threats of China in the Pacific region is seen as a larger game.
Whereas, China’s all-weather friend Pakistan is also an ally, especially when it comes to tackling Al-Qaida and the Taliban.
Ned Price, former CIA analyst and currently the spokesperson with the State Department, at a press conference attempted to make some clarity on these relations: “We don’t view our relationship with Pakistan, and on the other hand we don’t view our relationship with India, as in relation to one another. These are both partners of ours with different points of emphasis in each, and we look to both as partners because we do have in many cases shared values, we do have in many cases shared interests.”
He added: “The relationship we have with India stands on its own; the relationship we have with Pakistan stands on its own. We also want to do everything we can to see to it that these neighbours have relations with one another that are as constructive as possible. And so that’s another point of emphasis.”
On the F-16 maintenance programme and the US security ties with Pakistan over the last two decade, Price said: “It would be difficult for me to attempt to summarise 20 years of US-Pakistani relations – relations between 2001 and 2021. I suppose what I would say broadly, of course, is that Pakistan was not a monolith during that time.”
The military balance was at question by many analysts because when Lockheed’s F-16 is compared with Dassault’s Rafale, they both belong to the fourth generation fighters with advanced weaponry. The F-16 has a range of 4220 km vs Rafale which has 3700 km. What is concerning is that Pakistan has its complete squadron whereas Rafale still needs to be delivered to India over the course of time and this is where the imbalance exists. If, in the worst case scenario, China uses AI war over India, then Pakistan is also feared to mount an assault along LoC.
The US will continue to pick and choose its favourite in the subcontinent as per its need and strategic significance. In many cases, Pakistan has its role to play, although, India has gained a new role in the Indo-Pacific which former PM Manmohan Singh formulated and was carried forward by the current dispensation. What is to be seen now is if the US can steer both India and Pakistan to undermine China.
Shome Basu is a New Delhi-based senior journalist.