Indian officials insist that they downed a Pakistani F-16 on 27 February, the same day during which Pakistan successfully downed an Indian MIG-21 before rescuing and tending to the pilot who has now been released back to India. It has now been over a month since India first made its F-16 claim and in that period, no hard evidence has been produced to back the initial claim.
Now, a report from the United States citing top American military officials has confirmed that all of Pakistan’s F-16s are accounted for. Given America’s pivot towards India, a country now viewed by Washington as a useful partner in the neo-Cold War against China, it is significant that India’s lie about the F-16 was so big that even an strategic partner could not play along with such utter fiction.
This itself helps to explain that while the US is actively courting India, the nature of contemporary Pakistan-US relations cannot be categorised through a zero-sum prism.
Last year was a nadir in Pakistan-US relations after Donald Trump brazenly accused Islamabad of creating a “safe haven” for radials. That being said, as Trump has a penchant for cutting “aid” and military subsidies to foreign partners, this defamatory statement might well have been little more than an excuse that was needed in order to convince the US “deep state” to cancel $300 million in “military aid” (more accurately called reparations) to Pakistan.
Since then, two major things have happened. First of all, as Trump remains determined to extricate his country from the blood-soaked quagmire in Afghanistan, many in the US including Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad have come to realise that Pakistan’s approach to Afghanistan had been right all along and that since 2001, the US has ultimately followed the failed model of the Soviet invasion of the 1980s. As such, the US now needs Pakistani assistance to help guide an all-parties peace process which will see a reformed Taliban formalise its powerful de facto role as Afghanistan’s most prominent political force.
Seeing as such a peace process is scarcely possible without Pakistan’s diplomatic assistance, the US is actively rolling back the anti-Pakistan sentiments of last year at the same time as peace talks between Washington and the Taliban intensify.
Secondly, recent acts of unprovoked Indian aggression against Pakistani territory in the aftermath of the Pulwama incident have made the US reconsider its position on India in one crucial respect. The US will continue to strengthen its partnership with India as a means of trying to provoke China, whilst the US will also attempt to groom India into a position of becoming less reliant on Russian weapons and more reliant on American ones. But what the US does not want is a new India-Pakistan war and as such, while the US (like most nations on the planet) does not care about civilian life in Kashmir, the US realises that as state sanctioned violence against Kashmiri civilians intensifies, the chances of a new war increase.
As such, while the US was clearly not entirely displeased with Premier Modi’s exploiting of the events in Pulwama as an election stunt, the US also appears to have realised that unless issued with strict marching orders, Modi will take things too far if given the chance. While the US still needs to keep up appearances in respect of playing into India’s perverse narrative on Kashmir, Washington could barely disguise how badly it was irked by Modi’s dangerous game of brinkmanship.
Many in the US appear to have been caught off guard by just how unhinged Modi actually is, but this is no longer the case. As such, the US will remain happy to keep Modi’s aggression tethered to a short leash, but Washington now realises that Modi could become a liability if the leash is not gripped tightly. For Donald Trump there was also a personal element to the disappointment in Modi’s antics as India’s failed “surgical strike 2.0” on Pakistan tended to overshadow his prominent meeting with Kim Jong-un in Hanoi.
Because of this, the US will likely become more active in minimising the potential for conflict between India and Pakistan, not least because any further attempts by India to destabilise Pakistan will clearly have an impact on US attempts to restore order to Afghanistan after 17 years of chaos.
In this sense, while clearly growing more favourable towards India and less so towards Pakistan, when it comes to reigning in the excesses of destabilising Indian aggression and outlandishly provocative lies, the US still seeks to balance relations between Islamabad and New Delhi in order to effectively keep the capricious Modi on what amounts to a short leash. To be sure, the US wants Modi to be its anti-China attack dog in the region, but Washington certainly does not want Modi to trigger a nuclear war with Pakistan by taking matters too far.
Against this background, it is not difficult to understand why Donald Trump said the following on Pakistan Day:
“We’ll be meeting with Pakistan [leadership]. I think our relationship right now is very good with Pakistan”.
While Trump is not likely to restore the $300 million in “aid” owing to his overall policy of wanting partners to pay the US for “protection”, the US leader has clearly come to see that the US needs Pakistan in order to bring stability to Afghanistan. Washington has also been able to see that Pakistan is important as a bulwark against Indian expansionism that would clearly run amok in the region if countries like the US, China and Russia weren’t there to put the brakes on the BJP’s aggressive agenda.
Finally, as Donald Trump tends to enjoy the presence of charismatic world leaders, especially those who present a challenge to the American status quo (Kim Jong-un and Trump’s self described “good friend” Xi Jinping to name but two examples), Trump may well come to both respect and even like Imran Khan on a human level.
Imran Khan has stood out from his predecessors as a leader who can clearly, forcefully and magnetically articulate Pakistan’s position to international audiences. This has certainly not been lost on Trump and as such, the sooner he and Imran Khan meet, the better it will be for all parties involved.