It was April, and the heat in the white deserts of the Rann of Kutch was already unbearable. The Pakistan Army, which had already probed and pushed into the area months earlier, further pushed into the ancient fort of Kanjarkot, creating a serious threat to Indian forces in the area.

Further incursions were halted by international pressure and a ceasefire was negotiated. New Delhi was furious. The Pakistani Army’s adventurism was clearly fired by its four to one superiority over India in United States supplied tanks and other equipment, which was part of a $1.2 billion subsidised military aid aimed at defending against Soviet expansionism.

India’s pleas that American weaponry was being used to kill Indian troops fell on deaf ears. Worse, Pakistani success in the Rann operation certainly emboldened it to send more than 30,000 irregulars and army soldiers into Kashmir a few months later, leading directly to the 1965 war. Writing in the Washington Post, on 2 August, 1965, Selig Harrison recommended that America consider providing military aid to India as well, not just to fend off a Soviet influence, but also in a recognition of India’s larger size and importance in a China-focused Asia strategy.

The sense of déjà vu is inevitable. Reports indicate that the Pakistanis, yet again, violated the Line of Control (LoC) in Kashmir using American weapons. Pakistani forces used anti-tank guided missiles to hit Indian units, killing four including a Captain. This is far more serious than the use of American weaponry in battle — constituting as it does, wanton provocation during “peace time” — intended for the defence of Pakistan, and oddly enough against aggression from a communist state.

The original United States code 2375, which sanctioned military assistance to Pakistan, conveyed Congressional recognition of the need to defend against Soviet aggression from Afghanistan, to promote economic development, to provide for civil liberties, and to prevent nuclear proliferation. Most importantly, the code stated clearly that America should take ‘appropriate steps’ to ensure that defence articles provided to Pakistan are to be used for defensive purposes only.

The code recognised the original United States-Pakistan bilateral agreement of 1959 which remains valid, and which is also presumably based on the threat to Pakistan from communism. Since then, American assistance has not ensured any of the supposed ‘benefits’ appended to the original legislative instruments. Nor has it prevented Pakistan from going nuclear. If this is the legal basis of American assistance to Pakistan, then the present instance of use is in gross violation of its legal intent.

It is not that the United States code is inviolate and represents the ultimate law within the country. That remains the compilation of thousands of acts and legislation enacted by Congress and signed by the president, generally referred to as the “Statutes at Large” . The code is an edited collection that reflects this in terms of what it means, but it is ‘prima facie’ evidence of law, not the law itself.

However, if there is evidence of any United States legislation that permits Pakistan to use United States weaponry in aggression or in peacetime, it would be reflected in the code. Subsequently, years of legislation have identified various common interests for justifying military assistance, and then made various conditionalities that would prevent such aid when Pakistan was acting against American interests.

Over the years equally, American presidents made use of that useful phrase “national security interest” to waive such conditions that were imposed, when its defence and intelligence bureaucracy wanted it to continue.

Donald Trump threatens to cut off aid

Though the Donald Trump administration has gone further than most earlier administrations in threatening to end military assistance to Pakistan, this has not translated to a complete cut-off. Officials have already been heard to say that the extent of military aid freeze will be determined by ‘national security considerations’, and that it is a temporary move, subject to Pakistan’s cooperation in Afghanistan.

As of now, only about $255 million has been withheld, with the threat of further funds being held up to the extent of $2 billion in total sanctioned aid. Notably, the state department spokesperson was also heard to say that this freeze also included any transfer of military equipment.

It remains to be seen whether this includes for instance, spares for military combat aircraft and armoured personnel carriers among other United States weapons in the Pakistani inventory. In legal terms, this freeze should also include Turkey’s upgrade of F-16s sanctioned last year. As of now, there is no evidence of a complete halt. Unsurprisingly, Pakistan seems unconcerned by the talk of a complete freeze in military assistance.

To return to the 1965 assessment, the Central Intelligence Agency analysis indicated that President Ayub Khan was likely to prioritise patching up relations with the United States, since it was clear that “Russia would not and China could not provide the required military and economic assistance”.

Today, that situation has reversed. Russia will offer nothing without hard cash and China remains uninterested in providing subsidised military assistance or even economic aid. In such a situation, today’s Pakistan is also unlikely to want to cut ties completely with the United States, and that is what Washington is banking on. The pressure is being applied slowly and selectively to get the desired result.

New Delhi part of Washington's Beijing strategy

However, United States military aid is now going to a country where the Chinese are thick on the ground. Chinese engineers, scientists, contractors, businessmen and labour are active from Pakistan-occupied Kashmir to Karachi, not to mention Gwadar and off the shores of Pakistan. The fact that the original intent of legislation that sanctioned military assistance against communist ingress is now doing precisely the opposite, is ironic to say the least.

Then, there is the second part of what now seems like a really prescient prediction. India is — for better or for worse — part of Washington’s strategy regarding China. In this, as Selig Harrison observed, India has far greater weight for the purpose than Pakistan, whose room for maneuver is being reduced by the day by a combination of internal and external factors, not least of which is the inability of its army to stop terrorism into the neighbourhood.

In such a scenario, Washington would be well advised to take the present violation in the use of United States weapons extremely seriously, and at the very least, increase the pressure on Islamabad not to use its ‘made in America’ inventory in illegal causes against India. It is also the right time for South Block to raise the noise level on this latest violation. As a counter in the chessboard of yet another Great Game, the skill most required is diplomatic dexterity.