By Dr. Hasan Askari Rizvi
Prime Minister Imran Khan’s visit to Washington has ignited optimism that the US and Pakistan show signs of reviving amiability in bilateral relations marred by suspicion in recent years.
But as part of a new era in diplomatic ties, if the US agrees to restart military sales and military training programs for Pakistan previously suspended by President Donald Trump, it will have to show some flexibility. A key question arises in the background of Pakistan obtaining military helicopters from Russia last year and seeking more weapons and military equipment from Moscow now.
Traditionally, the Pakistan- US relationship has been largely centred around military relations. The inclusion of Pakistan’s army chief and head of Inter-Service Intelligence in Khan’s delegation to Washington last week shows the continued importance given to the role of military relations, sales and training between the two countries.
The US imposed its first arms embargo on Pakistan on the eve of the 1965 India-Pakistan war, and this was when Pakistan decided to pay attention to the domestic production of weapons and to diversify its supply. The country turned to China for weapons procurement, a trend that was reinforced after the second US weapons’ embargo at the outbreak of the 1971 India-Pakistan war.
On both occasions, the embargo also applied to India. However, as Pakistan was more dependent on American weapons supply, the arms embargo hit Pakistan harder than it did India. Gradually, China became the country’s main supplier of weapons and military equipment.
Pakistan also embarked on a policy of obtaining military equipment from European states. The question now is, will the US gradually revive its arms supply relationship with Pakistan or let it seek weapons from Russia? This is an important issue in the regional context. India obtains weapons and military equipment from Russia. Turkey and Iran have turned towards Russia for security cooperation and military equipment as well. Will Pakistan be next, and will the US stand by while this happens?
Pakistan’s military weapons procurement relationship with the Americans began in 1954, when Pakistan and the US signed the Mutual Defence Assistance Treaty. This was followed by two US sponsored regional security alliances- SEATO and CENTO. The fourth security arrangement was signed in 1959, the Mutual Security Pact. These arrangements facilitated American arms transfers to Pakistan and a military personnel training program. For some years, an American military advisory mission was based in Pakistan Army headquarters.
The US was building Pakistan military’s strength as part of its strategy for building regional security networks to contain the Soviet Union and the spread of communism. Pakistan’s problem was not the Soviet Union but its troubled relations weapons for use against bigger military power, India, and it wanted to build its security against this perceived Indian threat.
But as the US and Pakistan diverged on issues of security cooperation, the relationship ran into trouble from time to time.
Though the US eased its ban on weapons supplies after the India-Pakistan wars, no new aircraft were supplied, and new weapons were only supplied in limited quantities. After the Soviet military intervention of Afghanistan in the last week of December 1979, initially, American CIA quietly provided weapons for use by the Afghan-Islamic resistance against Soviet troops in Afghanistan.
In 1981, the US announced a six year, $3.2 billion assistance package for Pakistan which was equally divided between economic assistance and credit for military sales. Pakistan also obtained forty F-16 aircraft the cost of approximately $1.1 billion, which Pakistan paid in cash. In its second six-year assistance package between 1987-1993, aid to Pakistan equalled over $4 billion. This included $ 1.74 billion as credit for military sales. Under a separate arrangement, the US agreed to sell 60 F-16 aircraft over the next several years.
But in October 1990, Washington terminated the military sales and training program and economic assistance package by imposing sanctions on Pakistan for its continued work on nuclear weapons. The F-16 deal, too, was cancelled.
Against the backdrop of terrorist attacks in the US in September 2001, these sanctions were once again withdrawn as Pakistan joined the US-led ‘war on terror.’