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F-16s V Taliban, Cont'd

In our current issue I explain Pakistan's fixation with the American F-16 fighter jet, something that offers a valuable window into Islamabad's obsession with India, as well as Washington's dysfunctional relationship with the country. Earlier this week, the topic came up during Richard Holbrooke's testimony before the House International Affairs Committee. In one case, Holbrooke seemed to defend the notion that US-funded upgrades of Pakistan's aging F-16 fleet will make the jets effective as a weapon against the Taliban: "We have not come to a final decision on how to proceed with this and I know your body is looking at it very carefully," Holbrooke said, referring to a House bill to cut off US funding to upgrade the jets. "Right now, we have approved the mid-life upgrades so they will be able to convert planes to counter insurgency use."

But moments earlier, Holbrooke seemed to put the lie to the notion that F-16s are the right weapon for this fight:

I am told by F- 16 pilots that an F-16 with modern avionics can be used as a counterinsurgency tool, but quite honestly, it requires very sophisticated training. They did use the aging F-16s in their battles in Bajur Valley and in Swat. But they can only be used in daylight and with good visibility. They can't be used at night.

Yes. And I was told that the Pakistanis almost totally lack that sophisticated training. And the result of that is major collateral damage that makes ordinary Pakistanis angry at the government, the military, and the United States.

Later, New York Congressman Gary Ackerman, who last year chaired a subcommittee hearing sarcastically titled "Defeating al-Qaeda's Air Force: Pakistan's F-16 Program in the Fight Against Terrorism," seemed to propose halting delivery of 18 new F-16s that George W. Bush sold to Pervez Musharraf in 2006 unless Pakistan lets us question the rogue nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan:

REP. ACKERMAN: Inasmuch as you've brought up putting pressure on our friends, how much pressure should we put on them to give us access to AQ Khan?...

MR. HOLBROOKE: I find it hard to understand and I said publicly as a private citizen I found it inexplicable that A.Q. Khan was not immediately made available to the United States. We had no access. And I just don't understand it, quite frankly, given the immense amount of damage he--...

REP. ACKERMAN: What do we do now? He's still there. He still knows what he knows and we still don't know what we don't know.

MR. HOLBROOKE: I have raised it with the Pakistani government. Their response is, you know, this happened under the previous government.

REP. ACKERMAN: Yeah. But the guy still has the ability to talk and give us a sense --

MR. HOLBROOKE: I quite understand, Congressman. I share your --

REP. ACKERMAN: If it's a good idea, should we make those F-16s conditional on talking to him to find out to what extent he might have given technology or materiel to terrorist organizations or failed states or what have you?

MR. HOLBROOKE: I do not think that linkage will help either half of the equation. But I certainly share your concern. I raised it on my first trip there. I've raised it publicly. I will continue raise it. But I just think that the linkage would work against both issues, but I understand the importance of it. I share your view.

Indeed, when it comes to Pakistan, 'linkage' rarely seems to work. The recent pattern seems to be that we fling billions of dollars and sophisticated airplanes at them--and wind up getting about half what we're promised in return. At best.

--Michael Crowley