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Notes From A Tail Gunner’s Diary

In 1990, the Pressler Amendment blocked arms sales to Pakistan. Its author, Senator Larry Pressler, writes in this book about the makings of US foreign policy in those years, the stranglehold US lobbyists have over nations and the competing claims of India and Pakistan. Excerpts:

Notes From A Tail Gunner’s Diary
Tarmac Terrors
F-16 Fighting Falcon fighter jets at a US air base in South Korea
Photograph by Getty Images
Notes From A Tail Gunner’s Diary
Neighbours In Arms
By Larry Pressler
Penguin | Pages: 262 | Rs. 699

Let us take the case of the issue of the sale of F-16 fighter jets to Pakistan in 2016. Ever since the September 11, 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 bone yard in the Arizona desert, the Pakistanis were incensed.

During my service in the US Senate, there were 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.

Actually, the US’ goal with the nuclear deal with India was, selfishly, economic. It was primarily an arms trade deal.

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 organisations 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 subsidised 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 subsidise sales of military equipment to foreign countries. (Under the US Arms Control Export Act, the President is aut­horised 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 US 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 recognised 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 make it too easy for lobbyists to profit.

The power and pressure of the Indian embassy’s lobbying firm produced results. A week after the State Department’s ann­ouncement of the planned subsidised 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 US 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 behaviour 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 said, “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 during the vote, “Prohibiting a tax­­payer subsidy sends a much-needed message to Pakistan that it needs to change its behaviour, but preventing the purchase of US 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.


In actuality, the United States’ primary goal with this deal was, selfishly, an economic one. The US-India nuclear agreement was primarily an arms trade deal. While it certainly was intended to allow nuclear suppliers entry into India, it also opened up vast new trade opportunities between the United States and India for many other industries. Acc­ording to the US Census Bureau, trade between our two countries grew more than 100 per cent between 2006 and 2014—from $32 billion to $67 billion. Likewise, according to the Office of the US Trade Representative, US exports to India inc­reased by 339 per cent between 2003 and 2012. And herein you might spy the ten­­tacles of the Octopus slithering out of the water, feeling and grasping for opportunities to offload more weapons—gorged at the expense of civil development in India.

Pen Pals

George Bush and Manmohan Singh in Delhi in 2006

Photograph by T. Narayan/Outlook Archives

I fear the potential of the N-deal may never be achieved. The on-off support the US gives Pakistan hurts the US-India alliance.

So far, the defence industry is the only industry that has enjoyed significant gains from the nuclear deal. This was not a quid pro quo, but the deal did open the doors wide for more arms deals, notably C-130 and C-17 transport aircraft, and joint military exercises with India. This deal is simply a pathway to justify an escalation in arms sales between the two countries. Indeed, Stephen Cohen, a Senior Fellow from the Brookings Institute and an India expert, said that India will be “one of the largest markets for defense equipment in the coming two decades”. President Obama continued the trend started by President Bush and further opened up arms trade between our two countries. In 2009, the Boeing Company won a contract for a $2-billion order for P-3 Orion maritime reconnaissance aircraft. Lockheed Martin secured a $1 billion contract for more C-130 transport aircraft. In 2010, President Obama pledged $5 billion of military equipment to India, making the US one of India’s top three military suppliers.

Further efforts were made to loosen antiquated restrictions on technology transfer and to relieve onerous oversight controls. In 2013, the then secretary of defense, Ashton Carter, announced that India would be admitted into the coveted ‘Group of Eight’, the US allies that share the most sensitive technology details—without any export controls.

In 2014, analysts from the military trade publication Jane’s Defense said that India had become the largest foreign buyer of US weapons (only to be outbought by the Saudis in 2015). And, in 2015, President Obama and PM Modi announced new partnerships between our countries to jointly develop military jet engine technology and aircraft carrier design. Obama said publicly that forging deeper ties between our two nations was a primary foreign policy objective for his administration. What he did not say is that these deep ties are mostly military ones.

The US-India nuclear agreement was a good first step towards making India a key global ally. However, the deal has not even begun to achieve its full potential. I fear it never will. Domestic support for the deal in both countries is lacking. But I believe the on-again, off-again support the US continues to give to Pakistan prevents the US-India alliance from reaching its full potential. We need only look back at the history of our complicated relationship—and lingering  Cold War attitudes—to understand why.


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