KARACHI, Pakistan—The Defense Bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives last week, which imposes tough conditions on American military aid to Pakistan, has revived memories of the infamous Larry Pressler.
He, of course, was the Republican senator from South Dakota who, in 1986, sponsored the notorious Pressler Amendment to the U.S. Foreign Assistance Act, under which all American military and economic aid to Pakistan was stopped in October 1990, when President George H W Bush — Dubya‘s dad — said he could no longer certify that Pakistan did not possess nuclear weapons.
That cut off all U.S. aid to Pakistan, including the delivery of 28 F-16 fighter aircraft, which were part of a larger order for 42 F-16s that Pakistan had placed on General Dynamics Corporation of the United States in 1988. The aircraft were to be paid for in installments under the U.S. ‘Foreign Military Sales’ program.
At the time when the Pressler ban was imposed, Pakistan had made only an initial down payment of $ 50 million for the aircraft. Had Islamabad decided not to make any more installment payments, the national exchequer would have been out-of-pocket only to the tune of that initial $ 50 million.
But the then-Nawaz Sharif government, in its infinite wisdom, chose to continue making installment payments of $ 90 million every three months, even though senior U.S. State Department officials had publicly stated on more than one occasion that, after the imposition of the Pressler ban, there was “no question” of the United States supplying any military equipment or economic aid to Pakistan.
Between February 1991 and April 1993, I wrote a series of 14 detailed investigative articles for The News, pointing out repeatedly that Pakistan would neither get the planes nor its money back and urging the government to stop further payments. The trick, in life, is to be wiser BEFORE the event, not after it.
All those warnings fell on deaf ears, however, and the Nawaz administration continued to pay the installments as and when they ‘fell due’ under the terms of the original agreement with General Dynamics, notwithstanding the fact that the agreement had become invalid after the Pressler ban was imposed and the U.S. government had refused to deliver the aircraft.
It was only after the Nawaz government was dismissed by then-President Ghulam Ishaq Khan on April 18, 1993, and the Balakh Sher Mazari-caretaker government took over that Ilahi Bakhsh Soomro, a member of the caretaker cabinet, wrote a letter to the U.S. manufacturer in May 1993 stating that no further installment payments would be made.
By then, however, the total amount that had been paid to the manufacturer had swelled to $ 658 million — all thanks to the Nawaz government, though it was said at the time that an element of sleaze was also involved in the government’s decision to continue with the payments, with millions of dollars of the money allegedly going ‘missing’ and finding its way into the pockets of Pakistani middlemen.
To add insult to injury, the U.S. government continued to bill Pakistan several million dollars a year as ‘parking charges’ for the 28 aircraft that were parked at a U.S. air force base in Tuscon, Arizona. And that’s where they remained for more than 10 long years, with Islamabad having to shell out some $ 20 million in parking fees.
But what was our old friend Larry Pressler up to in the meantime? Well, he chaired the South Asia subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for a while in the 1980s and the 1990s, but lost his Senate seat in the 1996 mid-term congressional elections, despite receiving substantial campaign contributions from the Indian lobby in Washington as well as from Indian political action committees.
Given this lucrative Indian connection, it came as no surprise to anybody when, in January 2003, Pressler again turned up like a bad penny, this time as an advocate for the US making India an ally, in an article written by him in the Washington Times from Bangalore, India, headlined India: a natural ally.
This is how the article began: “Fast forward to November 1, 2003. The Iraq war is over. Saddam Hussein is gone (somewhere?)! We won! U.S. troops return to ticker-tape parades, the world bows to America‘s superpower with our citizens living in homeland peace forever after. Right? No, unfortunately, probably wrong.
“After a seemingly inevitable and necessary war with Iraq, President George W Bush may bask in victory. But Americans must also anticipate post-war chaos, as the Muslim world seethes with anti-American hatred. China and North Korea flex their muscles, the threat of terrorism increases, and countries tell U.S. citizens and businesses to stay at home.
“Post-Iraq, America will attempt to engage the Muslim world through diplomacy, but it must also send its Peace Corps volunteers, business leaders and college students with aid and assistance to placate those who hate us. More importantly, we will need to identify our friends and to stand by those countries that reflect our faith in democracy, human rights and religious freedom.“
And then came the clincher — the commercial message from Larry Pressler’s sponsor, as it were. “When Mr Bush woos his closest allies in the post-Iraq war era, India should be first among them,” he wrote. So now the cat was well and truly out of the bag.
To reinforce his message, Pressler added: “I write from Bangalore in southern India, where the summer sun and the outlook for the town’s software companies shine equally bright — as the ancient Silk Road linked India to the West, so the software trade links it to the United States. But these ties are not nearly close enough. The United States for too long has treated India and Pakistan as equal allies in the region, when America would be better served if it set India and China side-by-side and gave India the edge.”
There was more in this fulsome pro-India vein, but you get the picture. What Pressler seemed to have overlooked, however, in his apparent eagerness to serve as a lobbyist for India was that the “ancient Silk Road” he spoke of in his article terminates in what, today, is Pakistan, not India.
Mr. Omar is a renowned Pakistani journalist. This is a slightly edited version of his original weekly column Newswatch published in the daily newspaper The News.