How India Outfoxed Pakistan And Scuttled A Sweet F-16 Fighter Jet Deal From The US

by Larry Pressler - Nov 15, 2017 12:27 PM +05:30 IST
 How India Outfoxed Pakistan And Scuttled A Sweet F-16 Fighter Jet Deal From The US A US F16 fighter gets ready for takeoff. (Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)
  • Pakistan may have shared a cosy relationship with the Pentagon, but it failed to account for the power of lobbying across multiple channels – something India did right, resulting in Pakistan’s loss.

Let us take the case of the issue of the sale of F-16 fighter jets to Pakistan in 2016. Ever since the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, the US government has provided Pakistan with a steady stream of military assistance—to the tune of $25 billion since 2002 (as of 2012)—on the grounds that Pakistan is a willing ally in our counterterrorism efforts in the region and cooperates with us in Afghanistan.

Islamabad had been pushing to resume its purchases of the United States’ advanced F-16 fighter jets ever since 1990. This was the year the Pressler Amendment was enforced, preventing Pakistan from getting twenty-eight of the F-16s they had agreed to buy in the early 1980s. Forced to pay for storage fees as the unused F-16s collected dust in a boneyard in the Arizona desert, the Pakistanis were incensed.

During my service in the US Senate, there were a number of efforts by the Pakistani government to take possession of the F-16s. President Bill Clinton initially tried to convince Congress to waive the Pressler Amendment to allow the F-16s to be transferred to Pakistan. I vehemently opposed that effort. In addition to being a gross violation of the spirit and intent behind the Pressler Amendment, the F-16s would have served to advance Pakistan’s nuclear posture, since F-16s are capable of carrying a nuclear payload.

However, after 9/11, Pakistan upped its advocacy campaign and convinced the George W. Bush administration to sell them the fighter jets—to ‘exorcise the bitter pill of the Pressler Amendment’ and to forge new relations with Islamabad. The United States determined it was critical to placate Islamabad in order to get its cooperation in the war against the terrorists. Consequently, the Bush administration announced in 2005 its intent to once again sell F-16 fighter jets to Pakistan—as many as Pakistan wanted to buy.

How did Pakistan convince the Bush administration and, later the Obama administration, to continue to give it more and more military aid? According to the DOJ’s FARA database, Pakistan has not paid a registered lobbying firm since 2013, when they opted not to renew their annual lobbying contract with Locke Lord Strategies, the lobbying arm of the full service international law firm Locke Lord, which employs more than a thousand lawyers around the world and is one of the fifty largest US law firms. This is misleading, as everyone knows full well that Pakistan continues lobbying in Washington. The ISI just finds other unregistered individuals and organizations to do it.

However, the manufacturer of the F-16—the massive defence corporation Lockheed Martin—with $47 billion in annual revenue in 2016, also has a labyrinthine lobbying operation. According to the Center for Responsive Politics’ Open Secrets database, the company has been spending more than $10 million on it annually since 2006. In addition to their in-house lobbyists, they have amassed an army of outside companies to assist them with their lobbying efforts: law firms, public relations agencies, consultants. By far the largest amount of Lockheed Martin’s lobbying budget is paid out to the Podesta Group, the powerful firm headed by the super-lobbyist, Tony Podesta. Lockheed Martin paid the group $550,000 in the years 2014, 2015 and 2016. Most of the issues the Podesta Group advocated for on behalf of Lockheed Martin were defence and aerospace issues. It is highly likely that they assisted in the overall effort to push through the sale of F-16s to Pakistan!

In February 2016, the State Department and the Department of Defense announced that they were approving a sale of eight more F-16s to Pakistan, clearly a victory for Lockheed Martin. Under the terms of this new deal, however, the sale of these additional F-16s was to be subsidized by the US government. In a move to make these deals even sweeter, the government sometimes uses what is called Foreign Military Funds (FMFs). FMF is a bucket of taxpayer money that is used to subsidize sales of military equipment to foreign countries. (Under the US Arms Control Export Act, the President is authorized to finance—with taxpayer dollars—the procurement of defence articles and services for certain partner nations. Pakistan is considered one of these partner nations.) Although the full cost of these eight fighter jets is close to $700 million, under this deal Pakistan would only have to pay $270 million. US taxpayers would offset the difference.

The Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA), the government body responsible for managing and overseeing the sales of military equipment to foreign governments, issued a press release on the action in February 2016. It contained standard language and stated, ‘The proposed sale improves Pakistan’s capability to meet current and future security threats. . . . The proposed sale of this equipment and support will not alter the basic military balance in the region. . . . There will be no adverse impact on U.S. defense readiness as a result of this proposed sale.’

The DSCA and the State Department probably hoped the announcement would not attract much notice, since they distributed the press release on a Friday afternoon. The Indian government immediately and publicly protested both the sale and the subsidy, causing quite a hiccup for the US government. India’s leaders recognized the jets for what they were: a nuclear-capable force projection that could be used against them. The Indian foreign secretary, S. Jaishankar, immediately summoned Richard Verma, the US ambassador to New Delhi, to express his displeasure. And then the Pakistani government publicly feigned surprise over the Indians’ complaints.

The Indian embassy in Washington summarily deployed their army of lobbyists to block the deal. So, who has been lobbying on their behalf since 2010? Once again, the Podesta Group. According to their FARA filings, the Podesta Group was paid $700,000 by the Government of India for work they performed in 2016.

Conventional wisdom says that a firm that is representing India cannot very well represent Pakistan at the same time. But in the world of the Octopus, the same firm represents competing interests and it is all legal. The Octopus’s tentacles can be very long and hard to untangle. Representation for a defence contractor who happens to be promoting a weapons’ sale that benefits Pakistan is one step removed from direct representation for Pakistan’s government. Many of the lobbyists working for these firms and contractors are decent citizens who see a chance to make some real money—and probably feel they have the nation’s best interests at heart. Nothing they are doing is illegal. But I find it duplicitous. The Octopus and its convoluted and powerful infrastructure just make it too easy for lobbyists to profit.

Cover of the book <i>Neighbours in Arms</i> by Larry Pressler
Cover of the book Neighbours in Arms by Larry Pressler

The power and pressure of the Indian embassy’s lobbying firm produced results. A week after the State Department’s announcement of the planned subsidized F-16 sale to Pakistan, Kentucky Republican senator Rand Paul introduced a joint resolution to halt the sale. In his press announcement, he asserted, ‘The U.S. and Pakistani relationship has been a troubled one. Though the government of Pakistan has been considered America’s ally in the fight on terrorism, Pakistan’s behavior would suggest otherwise.’ The next month, Senator Paul forced a vote on the Senate floor by invoking the Arms Export Control Act of 1976, which allows any senator ‘to secure a floor vote to disapprove an arms sale law’.

Senator Paul went on to say, ‘We have to borrow money from China to send it to Pakistan. Such a policy is insane and supported by no one outside Washington.’ (Paul was referring to the fact that China invests heavily in the American bond market, which means that China owns a significant amount of US debt.) Senator Paul’s resolution was debated on the floor of the Senate and a vote was called, but the resolution was scuttled in what is called a ‘tabling motion’. In a seventy-one to twenty-four vote, the Senate voted to ‘table’ the resolution, which effectively killed the effort. Senator Paul received some bipartisan support for this resolution, but not enough.

The sale, however, did not go through as planned. The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Tennessee Republican senator Robert Corker, said at the time of the vote, ‘Prohibiting a taxpayer subsidy sends a much-needed message to Pakistan that it needs to change its behavior, but preventing the purchase of U.S. aircraft would do more harm than good by paving the way for countries like Russia and China to sell to Pakistan while also inhibiting greater cooperation on counterterrorism.’ As the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Corker had the individual power to prevent taxpayer funds from being used for the sale.

I know both Senators Paul and Corker. They, along with Pennsylvania Democratic senator Bob Casey, are the most likely legislators to take up the arms control mantle that the late Ohio Democratic senator John Glenn and I carried during the 1980s and 1990s. They are the most hopeful figures in the Senate who share the passion for nuclear arms control that Senator Glenn and I did. However, all three have presidential ambitions, so I fear they will always try to walk the political tightrope and placate advocates on both sides of the issue.

The sale was approved but without the FMF subsidies, and now Pakistan says it cannot afford to pay full freight for the eight fighter jets. Lockheed Martin also complained about the news, saying that it would not be able to afford to keep its F-16 production line in operation without the sale. It also said, incredulously and ironically, that it planned to move the entire F-16 production line from Texas to India. Indeed, the vice president of Lockheed’s F-16 programme, Susan Ouzts, said in an interview with reporters from the Pakistani English-language daily, the Nation, that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had expressed interest in the planes. The Nation article even alleged that India may have lobbied to place on hold an India F-16 deal to disrupt the Pakistan F-16 one.

Some Pakistani newspaper columnists blamed the collapse of the deal on the lack of sophistication of the Pakistani lobbying efforts in the United States. In a March 2016 editorial in the Express Tribune, a Pakistani newspaper that partners with the New York Times, columnist Hussain Nadim asserted:

“While technology changed diplomacy, lobbying and narrative-building, Pakistan continued with its traditional style of running diplomatic missions and releasing press releases as a primary method of communications. . . . On the other hand, while India pumped money into think tanks, academia, and enhanced its presence in Washington, DC, let alone setting up new endowments, Pakistan had even its professorial chairs comparatively empty in the US and, in most cases, continues to do so. It is startling to note that while Pakistan was taking billions of dollars in aid from the US to fight a long bloody war in the region, it completely missed the fact that it would require an extraordinary level of presence in think tanks, academia, and policy circles in the US to ensure the right message goes out globally. In other words, Pakistan went to fight a war without a story in mind and without a medium to tell that story.”

As cosy a relationship as Pakistan has with the Pentagon, apparently it forgot that the Octopus has many, many tentacles that would need to be choreographed.

This case study is just one example of the corruptive—but thoroughly legal—behaviour of the Octopus. It will sink its suctioned feet into any client that will pay it. Everyone and everything is sullied with money. No transaction or representation is completely transparent. Nowhere is that more evident than in the case of the US–India nuclear agreement, inked in 2005 and approved in 2008. Almost a decade later, the only beneficiaries of this deal are arms traders. No nuclear power plant has even broken ground. I blame the Octopus for this.

Excerpted from Neighbours in Arms: An American Senator’s Quest for Disarmament in a Nuclear Subcontinent by Larry Pressler, Penguin Random House India, 2017, with the permission of the publisher.

As chairman of the US Senate’s Arms Control Subcommittee, Larry Pressler advocated the now-famous Pressler Amendment, enforced in 1990. Aid and military sales to Pakistan were blocked, including a consignment of F-16 fighter aircraft, changing forever the tenor of the United States relationships with Pakistan and India, and making Pressler a temporary hero throughout India and a devil in Pakistan.

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