A New Beginning in US-Pakistan Relations
The Nation
January 25, 1998
James Rubin, the State Department spokesman, has reiterated the importance that President Bill Clinton attaches to US relations with India and Pakistan. Moreover, the Clinton Administration, by broadening the scope of Brown Amendment, may allow Pakistan to purchase military hardware directly from commercial sources in the United States.

With Pakistan, the United States had ended its strategic relationship as soon as the Soviets withdrew their troops from Afghanistan. Since then, the country has been left alone to deal with the messy and complex situation in the war-torn Afghanistan. Under the Pressler Amendment, enforced against Pakistan in October 1990, even the supply of weapon systems such as F-16 fighter aircraft for which Pakistan had already paid for was denied. The Brown Amendment, passed in September 1995, was just a “one-time waiver” to the Pressler Amendment, but it did help the country get military supplies worth $368 million from the United States.

Islamabad was given another relief in 1997, in the shape of the Harkin-Warner Amendment to the US Foreign Assistance Act, which will help increase private US investment and provide official US aid to NGOs working for the promotion of democracy in the country.

The delivery of 28 F-16s has been the key unsettled issue in Pak-US relations even since the imposition of the Pressler Amendment. Like other weapon systems, Pakistan had paid for the purchase of these aircrafts. Although the Brown Amendment has helped Pakistan in getting other weapon systems such as P-3 Orion aircraft and Harpoon missiles, the country has been unable to get the F-16s. Islamabad is in dire need of these aircraft in view of India’s massive armament, especially its growing missile capability.

The Pressler Amendment requires the Clinton Administration to certify every year whether Pakistan is engaged in a nuclear weapons pursuit or not. And, since the start of this decade, the Administration’s certification has said it does. All these years, while certifying Pakistan’s nuclear weapons pursuit before the Congress, the Clinton Administration has consistently assured the country it will try to settle the F-16s issue with the Congress.

Even Mr. Clinton had acknowledged during former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s visit to the United States in April 1995 that his Administration’s stand on the matter was “unfair,” and, therefore, he would try to resolve it. Despite this, nothing has happened so far. And now, it seems the Nawaz Sharif government has finally made its mind to try a legal course of action to get the supply of the long-stuck up planes.

Foreign Minister Gohar Ayub recently said the government was “preparing to seek” a settlement on the F-16s issue through a “US court.” Days later, the Foreign Office said the government had already hired a legal firm in the United States to study the case. If seen in this backdrop, the January 17 news about the likely US permission to Pakistan to directly purchase its military hardware from commercial sources in the United States points to a significant development.

This military hardware may not include F-16s, since they come under the purview of the Pressler Amendment, but, at least Pakistan will get some weapon systems for its defense against India. In the meantime, it may also get 28 F-16s, if the US court verdict goes in its favour. As for now, however, the move to settle the F-16s issue through a US court may have been made public by the Sharif government only as a pressure tactic to force the US government to soften its policy regarding the provision of US military assistance to Pakistan. Thus, the Clinton Administration’s decision to permit Pakistan the purchase of military hardware directly from US commercial sources may be linked to Pakistan’s resort to the legal option to settle the F-16s issue.

The key factor marring progress in Pak-US ties during all these years has been Pakistan’s nuclear programme. However, since the time the Brown Amendment was passed, the United States has been softening its nuclear policy towards Pakistan–in fact, towards both Pakistan and India. As last year’s report of the Council on Foreign Relations had pointed out, the Clinton Administration appears to have finally accepted nuclear status-quo in the region and what it now wants is to contain nuclear capabilities of the two countries. On January 16, President Clinton finally signed a nuclear cooperation deal with China, under which the United States will supply nuclear technology to China. Mr. Clinton had earlier refused to sign this deal with China in view of the alleged Chinese help to countries like Pakistan in nuclear and missile fields.

One hopes the new thinking on the part of the Clinton Administration will herald a new era in US-Pakistan relationship. For the US government, already pursuing what it calls a “strategic dialogue” with India, the outcome of the Indian elections is very important. It the Bhratiya Janataha Party (BJP) was able to form a coalition government, the chances of this dialogue failing are quite high. Brajesh Mishra, the Convener of BJP’s Foreign Policy Cell, has already stated categorically that if his party came to power, India will declare itself as a nuclear power without worrying about the consequences of such decision. The resort to such an action by India will not be acceptable to the United States.