The U.S. government announced Friday its decision sell nuclear-capable Lockheed-Martin F-16 C/D strike fighter aircrafts to Pakistan. While the deal still needs congressional approval, given that the Republicans control both houses of Congress, the sale is unlikely to face any roadblock.
To most South Asia observers, this decision was no surprise. Getting advanced F-16s and a package to upgrade its existing old F-16 fleet has always been on the Pakistani wish list since its president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, joined the U.S.-led coalition against terrorism in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. With intense media speculation in the preceding weeks, most news watchers felt a sense of inevitability about the F-16 sale.
Although the Bush maintains the sale of F-16s to Pakistan will not affect the regional balance, most experts disagree. Some Pakistani and Western analyses point to India's growing technological edge in the weapons arena. Systems such as the Israeli Phalcon Airborne Warning and Control System and the Russian-built Sukhoi-30MKI multirole aircrafts are given as examples of India's growing technology advantage.
Once again, the analyses that highlight India's perceived technological edge overlook some critical factors. Recent trends indicate Pakistan is rapidly closing the airpower technology gap. The FC-1 fighter, which Pakistan is jointly developing with China, is close to production stage and will go far to neutralize the Indian threat. The fighter program gives Pakistan some assets unavailable to date, including Beyond Visual Range air-to-air missiles, mid-air refueling and better radars. Pakistani air force leaders have publicly said they believe the FC-1 is an asset that is superior to anything on India's inventory except perhaps the Su-30.
The United States has already promised an upgrade package for the Pakistan air force's existing F-16 fleet. Over the next few years, Pakistan will be armed with upgraded F-16s and a large number of advanced FC-1 fighters - a situation few can argue is indicative of a major imbalance with respect to India. Clearly the new F-16s are nothing more than gravy for Pakistan. Pakistani defense analysts have noted the country is almost certain not to rely on the F-16s for its next generation strike aircraft needs and is looking to procure advanced "4th Generation" aircrafts from France or Sweden. Given that the F-16s are likely to be paid for by the U.S. taxpayer, they are unlikely to affect Pakistan's other defense procurements.
South Asia historians know that whenever the Pakistanis military feels strong or gets a shot in the arm, it has tended to undertake risky military actions against India, especially over the disputed Kashmir region, which Pakistan covets. Wars in 1965, skirmishes in 1999 as well as close calls in the late 1980s and early 1990s bear out this theory. In addition, war risk is historically compounded when a military dictator rules Pakistan, as is the case now. Therefore it is puzzling the United States has chosen to reward Pakistan with an offensive weapon system like the F-16 at a time when India-Pakistan peace talks are at a delicate stage.
Most Indian strategists and some Western analysts say a militarily uncertain Pakistan is more conducive for regional peace. Prominent South Asia expert Stephen P. Cohen has written in the past that it was good for the United States that after 9/11 it had great relations with India as it essentially forced Pakistan to agree to most U.S. terms when faced with a critical decision on whether to become a U.S. ally against al-Qaida and the Taliban.
Another Western academic who has visited Pakistan many times noted to this author last year that it was to America's advantage that the Pakistanis relied on U.S. goodwill to essentially persuade India to back off from attacking Pakistan during the 2002 border crisis that followed a terrorist attack on India's parliament.
"That lifesaving power gave Americans enormous leverage which should not be frittered away by strengthening Pakistan militarily with strategic weapons," the academic added. It now appears that the United States has decided to give up that leverage.
It is likely now that after the initial period of euphoria, Pakistan could begin to harden its attitude against India. Because it is unlikely U.S. diplomats will attach any strings to the F-16s, the Pakistanis could very well interpret this as a sign of U.S. dependency on Pakistan in the war on terror. U.S. scholar Jack Gill of the National Defense University has written Pakistani leaders have a history of misreading or ignoring U.S. messages especially when it comes to military adventures. As a result, he noted U.S. policy has many times led to the "inadvertent strengthening of those (Pakistanis) who advocated risky military strategies rather than political or diplomatic resolution of issues." Unfortunately, one can be almost certain the F-16 sale has a great risk of turning out to be one such policy move.
News reports quote unnamed administration officials directly relating the F-16 deal to Musharraf's cooperation in the war on terror. But fighter aircrafts are unlike educational aid or other financial support because their sale has serious geopolitical implications inside Pakistan and for U.S. foreign policy. When many Bush administration officials have repeatedly pointed out the need to reform Pakistan's education system as well as the dire state of its civil institutions, couldn't there have been an better way to reward the Pakistani government than by making a subsidized sale of destabilizing weapons systems?
Besides, Pakistan already receives billions in direct and indirect military assistance, with sales of more than a billion dollars worth of naval reconnaissance planes, helicopters, missiles and other systems already being approved. The Congressional Research Service, quoting Pentagon documents, says that between January 2003 and September 2004, Pakistan received military funding equivalent to about a third of its total defense expenditures. The United States is now committed to giving Pakistan at least $300 million in military assistance annually for an indefinite period.
In addition, Pakistan has received lifesaving concessions from the United States such as acquiescence to the cover up of the world's biggest and most sinister nuclear proliferation scandal, for which Musharraf conveniently made one man, A.Q. Khan, take the fall even as he pardoned the father of Pakistan''s nuclear program and kept him away from international investigators.
Nonproliferation advocates must also be aghast at the sheer irony of rewarding a serial nuclear proliferator, especially its military, with a nuclear weapon delivery platform. Although Pakistan has missiles capable of delivering nuclear warheads, no military leader would willingly avoid making an addition to his nuclear arsenal to use. At a time where the United States is urging the international community to take tougher action on "rogue" states that proliferate nuclear weapons, it is hard to see anything but hypocrisy when one juxtaposes U.S. tough talk with Iran and North Korea against its rewarding of a Pakistani military that supplied nuclear capability to the former two nations and is refusing to hand over the alleged proliferator-in-chief -Khan.
Other Bush officials have referred to the report by the independent commission that investigated the 9-11 attacks that recommended that Washington move to alleviate any mistrust in its attitude toward Pakistan and commit itself to providing military and other aid for that country. But they forget to mention that the commission also noted the aid should be contingent upon Pakistan's progress in moving toward becoming a moderate state and its sincerity in abandoning past policies.
Observers such as former Pakistani diplomat Husain Haqqani have begun noticing an eerie similarity between the Bush administration's policy toward Pakistan now and the Reagan administration's policy toward that country in the 1980s. In the Reagan era, Pakistan was presented as a bulwark against Soviet Communism and was lavished with F-16s and other weapons while its dictator, Gen. Zia-ul Haq, was portrayed as a courageous leader against communist tyranny. U.S. officials ignored Zia's antidemocratic actions and systematic destruction of political opposition. If one replaces Zia with Musharraf and communism with terrorism, the U.S. policy appears to be identical.
It is curious that on the one hand U.S. policymakers emphasize the fragility of Musharraf's hold on power while simultaneously seeking to sell long-lasting military assets such as the F-16s. Should the oft-touted scenario of Musharraf being assassinated or overthrown and a hard-line Islamist general replacing him become reality, it now appears the new regime is likely to be armed with latest U.S. weapons, while keeping Pakistan leaky nuclear estate intact. This is what happened in Iran when the U.S.-friendly shah was overthrown in an Islamic revolution and the anti-U.S. mullahs inherited a U.S.-supplied military with advanced F-14 fighters.
However, when people are determined not to learn from history, they will eventually have to pay the piper. The unfortunate part in this case is that in the near term, it is India and not the United States that will have to bear the consequences of U.S. expediency with Pakistan. In the longer term, however, U.S. policymakers better remember what military historian Ralph Peters once noted -- the shah always falls.