WASHINGTON — The United States has showered a cornucopia of economic assistance on Pakistan since Sept. 11 to get its support against Al Qaeda.
But until recently, the Bush administration has resisted Pakistani pressures for military aid, recognizing that such aid would heighten tensions between India and Pakistan and poison US relations with India once again as it did throughout the cold war.
Now, suddenly, the administration has opened a dialogue with Pakistan on its military hardware needs. The Pentagon has approved subsidized military sales totaling $230 million, including C-130 military transport aircraft. Pakistan's military ruler, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, has signaled that he will press for big-ticket items such as nuclear-capable F-16 fighter aircraft, heavy artillery, and Cobra attack helicopters when he visits the United States this week.
Pentagon officials argue that military aid is the only way to cement Pakistani cooperation against Al Qaeda. But it is not necessary to buy off the Pakistani military regime with weaponry, because it desperately needs US economic support for its survival. In any case, the chief of the Pakistani Air Force made clear on a recent Washington visit that Islamabad wants 70 new F-16s and other sophisticated US equipment not for use on the Afghan border but to bolster its posture toward India.
At first glance, it might seem desirable for the United States to promote a military balance between India and Pakistan by building up Pakistan. But India believes that it is entitled to military superiority over Pakistan, which is one-eighth its size, and that Indian superiority is necessary to maintain stability in South Asia. In this perspective, it is US military aid to Pakistan during the cold-war decades, totaling some $7.5 billion, that has periodically emboldened Pakistani generals to destabilize Kashmir.
Apart from alienating India, past US efforts to orchestrate an India-Pakistan balance have actually accelerated the arms race in the region. India has responded to US weapons aid for Pakistan by increasing its own military purchases, especially from Moscow, and Pakistan has tried to keep pace by adding Chinese military aid to what it has received from the US.
Pentagon assurances that military aid and US bases in Pakistan relate only to the "war on terrorism" rekindle Indian memories of earlier pledges by President Eisenhower in 1954 that the program of "limited" weapons aid to Pakistan then unfolding was solely for use against communist aggression. By 1965, the United States had provided $3.8 billion in military hardware to Pakistan. This led the then-military dictator, Gen. Ayub Khan, to launch the cross-border raids into Kashmir that triggered a broader war, in which Pakistan, predictably, relied primarily on its US planes and tanks.
Just when India had begun to forgive and forget, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan prompted Washington to supply Pakistan with $3.5 billion in new weapons aid, primarily F-16s and heavy tanks suitable not for use on the mountainous Afghan border but for open-plains warfare against India.
On a recent visit to India, I was told by Brajesh Mishra, national security adviser to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, that "so far, the United States has not taken any action involving Pakistan that hurts India. Our belief is that you want to stay in Pakistan and Central Asia for two reasons: to put pressure on Iran and to assure access to the petroleum potential of the region. If that is true, if you are looking westward and northward from Pakistan, we have no cause to worry, but it would be another matter if you decide to strengthen Pakistan against us."
Alarm bells are ringing in India following a US mission to the Pakistani capital of Islamabad in late July to reestablish a Pakistan-US Defense Consultative Committee.
This committee had been inactive for the past four years and has now begun to discuss a renewal of military aid. US congressional sanctions designed to punish Pakistan for its nuclear weapons program were partially lifted after Sept. 11 and will be totally phased out on Nov. 21, opening the way for expanded military transfers.
The argument that it is necessary to buy off General Musharraf with military aid not only underestimates his dependence on Washington but also overestimates his ability to help in crushing Al Qaeda. Islamic extremist influence is entrenched in the Pakistani armed forces, police, and intelligence agencies, curbing his power, and the growing instability of his regime has been underlined by his steady tightening of dictatorial controls.
Above all, whatever help Pakistan can provide in the short run is overshadowed by the compelling long-term US interest in improving relations with India, a rising economic and military power that will be much more important to the United States than Pakistan long after Al Qaeda has dropped from the headlines.
Selig S. Harrison is director of the Asia program at the Center for International Policy and a senior scholar of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.