An F-16 fighter jet takes off from an air base in Taiwan.  Upgrading the island's existing F-16 fleet to the latest V configuration is a key part of the United States' arms sales and transfer of defense technologies.  Photo: AFP
An F-16 fighter jet takes off from an air base in Taiwan. Photo: AFP

India-Pakistan rivalry has been exacerbated after a suicide car-bomb attack by an operative of the Jaish-e-Mohammad group on February 14 in the Pulwama district of Jammu and Kashmir state claiming the lives of dozens of Central Reserve Police Force personnel. Retaliatory Indian Air Force (IAF) attacks on the militants’ camps across the Kashmir border led to the incursion of Pakistani jets into Indian airspace and the downing of an Indian military jet.

IAF Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman was taken into Pakistani custody after his MiG-21 jet was downed during a dogfight over the ceasefire line; he was later released. In a joint press conference, the three chiefs of the Indian Army, Air Force and Navy accused Pakistan of using F-16s to target Indian military installations, while Pakistan has denied the charges. Many countries including the US have condemned the terror attacks.

The US has been categorical in its criticism of Pakistan and warned it to take on terrorism on its soil seriously. While many countries have expressed their sympathies and solidarity with the Indian fight against terrorism, the White House has clearly implicated Pakistan in the attacks: “The United States calls on Pakistan to end immediately the support and safe haven provided to all terrorist groups operating on its soil, whose only goal is to sow chaos, violence, and terror in the region.”

Further, India reportedly has evidence of the contract details between the US and Pakistan on the Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM) fired from an F-16 aircraft and shared the information with American interlocutors. It is noteworthy that as per the sale agreement the American fighter jets could only be used for counterterrorism operations and not to attack any country. If the US finds India’s longtime allegations of the misuse of American weapons by Pakistan to be true, this could draw the US closer to the Indian concerns over cross-border terrorism and proxy wars.

Meanwhile, a proposal by three permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, the US, the UK and France, has been submitted at the Council to designate Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Masood Azhar a global terrorist and subject him to a global travel ban, an asset freeze and an arms embargo.

The Indo-Pacific thrust

The US began considering India instrumental in maintaining balance in Asia and as a possible counterweight to China’s rise once India showed signs of prominent economic and military progress. Indo-US relations that began to take off in the final years of Bill Clinton’s presidency were invigorated during the presidency of George W Bush. The national security adviser to Bush, Condoleezza Rice, suggested in an article in Foreign Affairs in the very beginning of the 21st century that the US should pay closer attention to India’s role in the regional balance of South Asia.

Around the same time, then-Indian prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee referred to India and the US as “natural allies” and underlined the shared values of democracy between the largest and the oldest democracy in the world during his trip to the US. However, relations between the two countries seemed to be driven more by their relevance to each other’s interests than convergence of their values. Bush, in an effort to apprise Vajpayee of the changing power dynamics on the Asian continent, said: “A strong India can help provide the balance of power in the entire Asian region.”

The Bush administration, perhaps realizing the importance of India’s economic and military clout, emphasized the de-hyphenation of India and Pakistan policy after decades of Pakistan-centricity that implied that Washington would improve relations with Islamabad as well as New Delhi rather than treating them in zero-sum terms. India’s response to the changing American gesture was very positive.

For instance, New Delhi reacted positively to the Bush administration’s allegedly controversial National Missile Defense (NMD) program. In the wake of the “war on terror” launched in 2001, New Delhi, expecting an all-out war against terrorism, declared its immediate support and within a short time offered full logistic help to Washington. The US lifted nuclear sanctions against India and eased export controls on so-called dual technologies, which could serve both civilian and military purposes.

US dependence on Pakistan

In 2004, Bush, realizing Islamabad’s vitality to prosecute the Afghan war, said, “I hereby designate the Islamic Republic of Pakistan as major non-NATO ally of the United States for the purposes of the Arms Export Control Act,” making Pakistan eligible for a series of benefits in the areas of foreign aid and defense cooperation, including priority delivery of defense items.

On the other side, an Indo-US strategic partnership (based on an acknowledgement of India’s rising power) was forged with the signing of the Indo-US Civil Nuclear Deal in 2005, which was intended to facilitate the supply of American nuclear-energy technology, uranium and reactors to India for civilian purposes. The deal was aimed at providing India with all the benefits that the signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) received even though India had refused to sign that treaty even under US pressure.

Under Bush as well as his successor Barack Obama, the US kept supplying a substantial amount of economic and military aid to Pakistan to prosecute the Afghan war, as not only did its geo-strategic location allow it a major role in the provision of supply routes for US and North Atlantic Treaty Organization convoys, the US relied heavily on intelligence inputs from Pakistan to curb militancy in Afghanistan.

The Obama administration’s plan to draw down American troops from Afghanistan by fixing a timeline enhanced US dependence on Pakistani channels further in an effort to reconcile with the “good Taliban” and find a political solution to the Afghan conundrum. The differences in the US and Indian positions on terrorism became apparent in their divergent perceptions. While India considered the “war on terror” as a comprehensive and all-out effort to eliminate terrorism, the US sought to address those threats that undermined American efforts in Afghanistan (al-Qaeda, the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network) rather than mitigate the cross-border terrorism (perpetrated by groups such as Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, Jaish-e-Mohammad and Lashkar-e-Taiba) concerns that bothered India.

From 2002 to 2008, the US provided almost $12 billion to Pakistan. Whereas only 10% of this money had been for development purposes, 75% had been explicitly for military purposes. However, Pakistan allegedly used the military aid for purposes other than combating terrorism.

According to Azeem Ibrahim, former research fellow with the International Security Program, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, “The Pakistani military did not use most of the funds for the agreed objective of fighting terror. Pakistan bought much conventional military equipment. Examples include F-16s, aircraft-mounted armaments, anti-ship and anti-missile defense systems, and an air defense radar system costing $200 million, despite the fact that the terrorists in FATA [Federally Administered Tribal Areas] have no air attack capability. Over half of the total funds – 54.9% – were spent on fighter aircraft and weapons, over a quarter – 26.62% – on support and other aircraft, and 10% on advanced weapons systems.”

India’s role was, however, conceived important to serve the US Asia-Pacific strategy, which was largely based on containing the growing influence of China. The chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, who came alongside special envoy Richard Holbrooke to New Delhi in July 2010, wanted India to focus on its military-to-military cooperation with the US and, of course, to work hard with Washington to counter China’s “assertive … territorial claims and aggressive approach to the near-sea area recently.”

On the other side, at the same time, Holbrooke advised India not to worry about the future of Afghanistan, where New Delhi would have a role to play. President Obama requested that the US Congress pass two bills including one that would provide $1.5 billion a year for five years to build schools, roads and hospitals in Pakistan and another that would create “Opportunity Zones” on border regions to develop the economy apart from the provision of military assistance to enable Pakistan to fight the war on terror.

India’s centrality to the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia” strategy and later the Donald Trump administration’s Indo-Pacific policy clearly exemplified the American vision of binding India into a close strategic partnership.

New Delhi and Washington issued the Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region in January 2015. The US declared India a major defense partner in December 2016. The two countries held a new bilateral maritime security dialogue in April 2016 and signed foundational security agreements such as Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) – allowing access to designated military facilities on either side for the purpose of refueling and replenishment and Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) on September 6, 2018 to facilitate Indian military platforms’ access to encrypted, cutting edge and high-end secured communication equipments from the US.

Defense trade between the two countries surged from $1 billion in 2008 to more than $15 billion by the end of 2016. Strengthening of Indo-US strategic ties on the Indo-Pacific front pointed to convergence of the two powers’ interests in stemming Beijing’s overriding influence in the region.

Indo-US strategic partnership apparently stood on Indian centrality to the American Indo-Pacific strategy and was not strong enough to allay New Delhi’s concerns over cross-border terrorism. However, the evolving common understanding between India and US on the issue of militancy and possible misuse of American-supplied weapons after the Pulwama terror attacks raise the possibility of the tightening of bilateral relations. Still, the US dependence on Pakistan for its Afghan war and peace strategies raise doubts.

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