U.S. lawmakers Tuesday criticized the Bush administration's plans to sell advanced fighter jets to Pakistan, saying the move could result in an arms race with India, derailing a two-year-old peace process, but experts were divided over the potential implications of the sale to Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's government.
The Bush administration announced March 25 it will sell an unspecified number of F-16s to Pakistan, bringing to an end a two-decade-long dispute with the South Asian nation over the aircraft. In the late 1980s, Washington had agreed to sell 32 F-16s to Pakistan, but the former President Bush, the father of the current president, cancelled the deal following a dispute over Pakistan's nuclear program.
At the time of the announcement, the Bush administration also offered advanced fighter aircraft to India, Pakistan's arch rival with which Islamabad is now engaged in a peace process. The Bush administration has become close to India and at the news conference to announce the sales said it wanted to "help" the South Asian giant become a superpower.
Lawmakers asked Tuesday if the Bush administration's plans would not set off another arms race between two poor nations who have fought three wars since almost-simultaneous independence in 1947.
"The F-16 is for fighting India, not terrorists," said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif. "How can we in good conscience permit such a poor country that is without a healthcare or education system for its people spend money on a blue ribbon showoff weapon system like the F-16?"
Both Republicans and Democrats on the House Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific asked why the sale of technologically advanced warplane was vital to a poor nation ruled by a military dictator. Rather than supplying Pakistan with enhanced weaponry, many lawmakers said the United States should be promoting democracy and telling Pakistan, a key U.S. ally in the war on terror, to focus on rooting out terrorist groups in the country.
"What do we get for setting aside our democratic principles, our concerns about nuclear proliferation, and showering Pakistan with military hardware?" asked Rep. Gary L. Ackerman, D-N.Y. "Why... we get cooperation on the global war on terror," he said sarcastically.
Appearing before the subcommittee, Christina Rocca, assistant secretary of State for South Asian Affairs, said Pakistan's leaders have "taken the steps necessary to make their country a key ally in the war on terrorism and to set it on the path to becoming a modern, prosperous and democratic state."
Rocca added: "It should be noted that with respect to the war on terror, Pakistan is saving American lives everyday."
Some experts who spoke before the panel said though Pakistan was a key ally, Washington needed to be wary of the country.
"Intelligence reports repeatedly assert that in the border area with Afghanistan, Taliban and al Qaeda remnants continue to find a safe haven, and often with the connivance of local Pakistani authorities," said Dana Robert Dillon, a senior policy analyst for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank.
Ackerman said he feared the worst if the United States went ahead with the sales, which have angered India.
"This is what is called an arms race," he said. "The leaders of Pakistan have come through coups and assassinations as much as they have through elections. There is no respect to India's democratic institution - this is not leading by example."
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who is expected in Washington soon, is likely to raise the issue of the sales with the Bush administration, Indian news reports say.
Experts, however, downplay the likelihood of an arms race between the two nuclear-armed neighbors who came close to a fourth war two years ago before their current attempts at peace.
"Both sides understand that a conventional war could rapidly deteriorate into a nuclear exchange, my judgment is that the F-16's do not change this situation," said Stephen P. Cohen, a senior fellow in Foreign Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution, a centrist Washington think tank.
He said an arms race was a factor before the two nations acquired nuclear weapons in 1998.
Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., said it was not Washington's job to tell countries what they should or should not want to defend themselves. He noted India had expressed interest in buying similar warplanes from France and that it and Pakistan would advance their defense systems with or without U.S. sales. He added it would be more dangerous for these countries not to have sophisticated military capabilities.
"Weakness always encourages bullies - the biggest deterrent to bullies is to be strong enough that they won't be pushed around," said Burton.
Rocca said the sales would not affect stability in the region and noted it was equipment Pakistan needed.
"The sale meets Pakistan's legitimate defense needs, making Pakistan more secure without upsetting the current regional military balance," she said.
Those comments reflect the Bush administration stand that relations between the two sides are rapidly improving, an assessment not everyone shares. Cohen said he was concerned the administration was not paying enough attention to the prospect of a war between India and Pakistan.
"It seems to hope that the present India-Pakistan dialogue will flourish, leading to some kind of agreement on Kashmir and other outstanding disputes," he said, noting he was pessimistic about the situation.
The countries have for the past two years engaged in a series of political, cultural, sporting and diplomatic exchanges in a bid to solve all outstanding issues, including Kashmir, the Himalayan region they both claim. The arms sales, some lawmakers said, would add affect a fragile situation.
"I am not a person who thinks that peace comes at the end of a barrel," said Rep. Diane Watson, D-Calif. "We are adding to the aggressive behavior rather than addressing the social needs as a top priority."