NEW DELHI: The decision of the Joe Biden administration to give $450 million worth “sustainment” and “related equipment” for F-16 fighter jets that Pakistan has been maintaining since the 1980s is being seen as a recognition of Pakistan Army’s effort to help the Biden administration in generating crucial domestic goodwill by way of helping them eliminate Al-Qaeda chief Ayman Al Zawahiri.

This is being seen as the first step towards Biden opening up more avenues of “military-security cooperation” with Pakistan in the coming months. Observers of the bilateral relations between the two countries (the US and Pakistan) believe that this surprising move by Biden, which reverses the decision taken by his predecessor Donald Trump in January 2018 to freeze all security-related assistance to Pakistan, has also, in effect, closed the doors to efforts by Lockheed Martin, which produces these F-16 fighter jets, to sell the F-21 aircraft to the Indian Air Force (IAF), which is looking for a seller for its mega deal of 114 Multi-Role Fighter Aircraft (MRFA) that will cost Rs 1.5 lakh crore.

Lockheed Martin, which is desperately looking to clinch this deal with India—which it needs to offset its losses and dip in revenue—has offered that it will not sell the F-21 to any other country if it gets the order and has also promised to shift the production of F-16 to India. Official sources in New Delhi told The Sunday Guardian that the sudden announcement came even as the relationship between the US and Pakistan was not “normal”, thereby indicating that the decision, in all probability, was taken as a sort of “quid-pro-quo”.

On 31 July, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, the chief of Al-Qaeda, was killed in a US-executed drone strike even as he was strolling in his balcony in a highly secure Sherpur area in Kabul, Afghanistan. Sources in Taliban and two similar groups, who have local resources in and around Kabul, had told this newspaper, at the time, that the information regarding Zawahiri being present in Kabul was developed by the local assets of Pakistan’s intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). This information was then verified by the ISI before it was passed on to the agencies that were seeking Zawahiri. The CIA had at the time declined to comment on The Sunday Guardian’s queries on Zawahiri.

The Biden administration has sought to justify this $450 million deal by stating that it would help Pakistan in supporting “counter-terrorism” efforts, which is also being read as an indication of the deal being related to Pakistan allowing US assets to use Pakistani air space as was done in the case of Zawahiri.

On 28 August, Afghanistan defence minister, Mohammad Yaqoob accused Pakistan of allowing the United States to use its airspace for drone attacks against Afghanistan. Yaqoob’s claims came in the wake of the drone strike against Zawahiri and this recent announcement by the US State Department to refurbish the F-16 in lieu of the cooperation being given by Pakistan in “counter-terrorism” efforts will further add credibility to the Taliban’s and Yaqoob’s claims.

The Sunday Guardian on 21 May had stated that US forces were using Pakistan air space to stage drone attacks in and around Afghanistan (Are US drones using Pakistan airspace, soil?).

The nearly 50 feet long, 17 feet tall and 31 feet wide F-16 aircraft is marketed as an aircraft that can carry out air-to-air combat and air-to-surface attack. However, with the Taliban coming to power in Afghanistan, Al Qaeda operating from cities rather than from the mountains of Tora-Bora, and the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), too, headquartered in populated areas, how the F-16 will help the Pakistan Air Force in carrying out “counter-terror” operations is something that the Biden administration does not have an answer to.

Incidentally, the same F-16 was used by the Pakistan Air Force to shoot down one of India’s MiG-21 fighter jets on 27 February 2019. The MiG-21 was chasing Pakistani jets that had entered Indian air space following the IAF air strike in Balakot, Pakistan, to destroy terror training camps in the aftermath of the Pulwama bombing.

As per the statement of the US military regarding this deal, it will “consolidate prior F-16 sustainment and support the Pakistan Air Force F-16 fleet”. It will also allow Pakistan to participate in the in F-16 Aircraft Structural Integrity Program and will provide electronic Combat International Security Assistance Program, International Engine Management Program, Engine Component Improvement Program, and other technical coordination groups, aircraft and engine hardware and software modifications and support, aircraft and engine spare repair/return parts, accessories and support equipment, classified and unclassified software and software support.

The statement clearly mentions that the proposed sale will not include any new capabilities, weapons, or munitions and “will not alter the basic military balance in the region”, something which experts say was added to assuage the expected backlash from India.

The Sunday Guardian reached out to the US State Department seeking responses to the following questions: 1. The statement made by the department in the news release (Transmittal No. 22-07) states that the proposed sale will help Pakistan in using the F-16 in counter terrorism efforts. However, it is a matter of record that the F-16 was used by Pakistan to shoot down an Indian Air Force aircraft in 2019. Is there some sort of sovereign guarantee that Pakistan will not be using F-16 against India?; 2) Multiple reports over the years have stated that the F-16 are among the aircraft that the Pakistan Air Force has used on its unarmed civilians which it has justified by stating that they are “Baloch separatists”. How will the US administration ensure that these F-16 are not used on unarmed men and women?; 3) Lastly, the $450 million will be used to refurbish a total of how many F-16 that Pakistan possesses? And is there any timeline that has been decided regarding till when this $450 million can/should be used?

In its response, a US Department of State spokesperson said, “Pakistan’s F-16 program is an important part of the broader United States-Pakistan bilateral relationship. The proposed sale will sustain Pakistan’s capability to meet current and future counter-terrorism threats by maintaining its F-16 fleet. The F-16 fleet allows Pakistan to support counterterrorism operations through its robust air-to-ground capability. In addition, this proposed sale would ensure Pakistan retains interoperability with US and coalition forces in ongoing counterterrorism efforts and in preparation for future contingency operations.”