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PAKISTANIS TREAT THEIR military achievements like pop icons. Photos of the nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan are waved at rallies, and a street in Islamabad bears his name. Replica models of the mountain site where the country tests its nuclear bombs stand at the center of traffic circles. And the angular black silhouette of the F-16 fighter jet is such a treasured image that it is often found on the brilliantly colored commercial trucks that rumble along Pakistan’s highways. “If you drive behind those trucks, they have pictures of F-16s painted on the mud flaps,” says Shuja Nawaz, a South Asia expert at the Atlantic Council and author of a recent book on the Pakistani military. “It is part of the popular culture of Pakistan.”

Pakistan’s Top Gun mentality is partly about its archrival to the east. Equipped to carry nuclear bombs, Pakistan’s F-16s would be a main vehicle for annihilating Indian cities in an all-out war. But the F-16 is also a symbol of Islamabad’s impressive clout in Washington. Every one of the country’s F-16s, acquired over the past 30 years, was manufactured and sold by the United States—proffered by presidents keen to maintain good graces with the nascent Islamic nation, despite widespread objections that America was foolishly coddling a dangerous and undemocratic nuclear power.

Unfortunately, this object of national pride can do almost nothing to save Pakistan from the greatest threat to that country today, which is not India but a growing domestic insurgency. A single-engine fighter capable of breaking the sound barrier, the F-16 is perhaps the world’s most versatile combat jet—effective at both air-to-air combat and medium-range bombing missions. Israel used it to bomb Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981, and NATO F-16s bombed Serbian positions in the Balkans in the 1990s. But it is virtually useless for battling the small bands of Taliban fighters who have recently advanced to within 70 miles of Islamabad.

That’s why there’s a move afoot in Congress to cut off U.S. funding for Pakistan’s beloved F-16 program. But the effort, like similar ones before it, seems destined to fail. As a result, the U.S. military aid that Pakistan direly needs for counterinsurgency equipment will instead continue to fund its ability to attack India.

This contorted situation raises some fundamental questions about the Pakistan crisis and America’s ability to solve it. For instance: Which enemy is Pakistan more interested in fighting—Islamic radicals or the Indians? And can Washington ever really get tough and deny Pakistan something it wants without risking a loss of cooperation in the effort to stabilize Afghanistan and maintain Pakistan as a Western-aligned ally? The answers may turn out to be disappointing, in part because, for Pakistan, the F-16 has become something more than just a flashy fighter jet. It has become a supersonic, supercharged symbol of the entire U.S.-Pakistan relationship, and one that is not tinkered with lightly.

THE STORY OF Pakistan’s love affair with the F-16 is also the history of America’s dysfunctional relationship with the country. In 1981, shortly after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, the United States pulled Pakistan close with the sale of 40 F-16s. Four years later, the U.S. Senate banned military aid for Pakistan unless it halted its efforts to develop a nuclear bomb. It was a half-hearted effort, however. At the time, America cared less about proliferation than about Pakistan’s help in driving the Soviet Union from Afghanistan—so, for several years, the United States looked the other way. In 1989, George H.W. Bush sold Pakistan another 28 of the jets for $22 million apiece.

Before the planes were shipped, however, the Soviet Union retreated from Afghanistan; now Washington needed less from Islamabad—and got tough. When the United States reached the obvious conclusion that Pakistan did, in fact, have a nuclear weapons program, the Bush White House halted the shipment of F-16s. The jets were mothballed at a military base in the Arizona desert known as “The Boneyard.” Adding insult to injury, Washington refused to reimburse Pakistan for the $656 million it had paid to U.S. defense contractors—and even charged Pakistan for storage and maintenance costs.

The move poisoned America’s image in Pakistan. Military and civilian leaders fumed over the insult. “Our relationship with the Pakistani military really took a nosedive when we halted the shipments of F-16s,” says Andrew Exum, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security. “Part of the reason we’re in such a mess in Pakistan is that we don’t have high-level contacts [with Pakistani generals]. And those relationships suffered because of the halted F-16 shipments.”

No kidding. Bruce Riedel, who recently led the Obama administration’s review of Afghanistan-Pakistan policy, has written that the F-16 switcheroo convinced Pakistan’s officer corps that the United States can’t be trusted, and that it “sees Pakistan as a condom, [to be] used and then thrown away.” In a chilling reflection of broader public opinion, the F-16s even became a cause celebre for Al Qaeda: Among the public demands of the terrorists who kidnapped and later murdered Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was delivery of the F-16s. For a full decade, Pakistan fulminated over its lost armaments. Only after its government threatened to sue the United States—and hired former White House lawyer Lanny Davis, a close friend of Bill and Hillary Clinton—did the Clinton administration reimburse Pakistan’s money.

But even that payback didn’t satisfy Pakistan. Soon after September 11, George W. Bush assembled a $1 billion-plus aid package to ensure Pakistan’s help in fighting terrorists. But Pakistan’s military ruler, Pervez Musharraf, said his country still wanted its jets. When Bush refused, Musharraf grumbled about the negative effect on “public perception” in Pakistan. Four years later, Bush relented and sold Musharraf 36 new F-16s for $1.4 billion, plus a $891 million deal to upgrade Pakistan’s existing fleet of early-1980s vintage jets (the order was later halved due to Pakistan’s budget woes after a major 2005 earthquake). As The New York Times put it, the sale—probably possible only because Pakistan had become flush with U.S. foreign aid—was viewed as “a reward for [Pakistan’s] cooperation” in the fight against terrorism.

Never mind that such cooperation was limited at best or that Pakistan had offered scant cooperation with the investigation of A.Q. Khan’s nuclear bazaar. For a Bush administration dealing with the worst violence in Iraq and with no clear strategy for maintaining stability in Pakistan and Afghanistan, it was a symbolic gesture, given in the hope that Musharraf might yet become a savior. And, for Musharraf, it was a personal coup that enhanced his stature at home.

The deal wasn’t uncontroversial. Then-Senator Joe Biden, among others, denounced the F-16 sale, calling it a “reckless action” that “should be reversed, immediately,” unless Pakistan embraced democracy. And the deal soon looked all the worse when it became clear that—despite its promises—Pakistan couldn’t actually pay for the planes. In June 2008, it emerged that Pakistan was having trouble coming up with money to pay for the upgrades to modernize its F-16 fleet. Ever kindly, the Bush administration shifted roughly $230 million from an account earmarked by Congress to pay for Pakistani counterterrorism equipment like Cobra helicopters and surveillance planes and directed it to pay for the F-16 upgrades. That payment amounted to more than two-thirds of all the U.S. counterterrorism spending on Pakistan. The Bush team also signaled that it would be looking to shift another $142 million for the same purpose the following year.

Livid, congressional Democrats staged a hearing sarcastically titled, “Defeating Al Qaeda’s Air Force: Pakistan’s F-16 Program in the Fight Against Terrorism.” At the hearing, Bush officials halfheartedly argued that F-16s were in fact useful against terrorists and insurgents. (In truth, only highly trained pilots, which Pakistan lacks, can conduct such operations without vast collateral damage to civilians.) But their central argument continually circled back to symbolic diplomacy. “Our willingness to provide F-16s,” one State Department official, Don Camp, argued, “has become an important symbol in Pakistan.” To drive home his point, Camp cited those “brightly decorated trucks” bearing F-16s logos.

In the end, Congress relented—grudgingly. “Nobody likes this, nobody’s enthusiastic,” says one congressional aide familiar with the issue. “Why should the U.S. pay for aircraft that are primarily meant to be used against India? It’s infuriating.”

NOW THAT THE Obama administration is overhauling America’s approach to Afghanistan and Pakistan, some members of Congress want to shoot down the F-16 drama once and for all. After all, Pakistan still owes some $400 million for the F-16 upgrades, and some suspect that the country won’t have the remaining money for the new jets either. (“If they can’t come up with the money to pay for the upgrades, you have to wonder how they’re going to pay for the new F-16s,” says the congressional aide.) Hence a Pakistan aid bill recently crafted by House International Relations Committee Chairman Howard Berman would cut off the use of any more U.S. funds for the purchase or upgrade of Pakistan’s F-16s.

But, even now, opponents of cracking down make a strong case. The F-16 may be a diversion from the true crisis facing Pakistan. It may be a terrible use of scarce U.S. taxpayer money. But, like his predecessors, Barack Obama still desperately needs the cooperation of the Pakistani military in fighting the Taliban and rooting out Al Qaeda. Sending the planes may simply be the least bad option. “Cutting off F-16s is viewed in Pakistan as a hostile action,” says a Senate aide. “The military feels they need F-16s to defend against India, rightly or wrong. The general population feels it’s a matter of national pride. So this is really poking them in the eye.”

In contrast to the House approach, the Pakistan aid bill produced by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee says nothing about F-16s. The House approach is too blunt for the Senate’s tastes. Writing a funding cap into law will be seen in Pakistan as another “huge slap in the face,” says the Senate aide. Moreover, F-16 funding “is a very powerful lever”—one that should be used privately and subtly to induce concessions from Islamabad.

Of course, the United States has spent decades trying to convince Pakistan to do things that are in our interest, often with only illusory success. Now, in the coming weeks Congress—along with the Obama White House—will have to decide how much longer it’s willing to cater to Pakistan’s fighter-jet fixation. With all 18 F-16s from Pakistan’s 2005 purchase still on the assembly lines and yet to be delivered, there’s good reason to think the long and strange F-16 dogfight between Washington and Islamabad is far from over.

Michael Crowley is a senior editor at The New Republic. This article appeared in the May 20, 2009 issue of the magazine.