Selling arms to India and Pakistan: explosive business

Russia and China are main suppliers, but US and British high-tech weapons sales may also be fueling an arms race

When India began a pullback last month of tens of thousands of troops along its 1,800-mile border with Pakistan, diplomats in Washington and Europe chalked it up as another victory for quiet diplomacy.

But India and Pakistan say the conflict is far from over. On the contrary, the disputed territory of Kashmir remains volatile, and both countries are engaged in a quiet but substantial arms race, preparing themselves for an almost inevitable next war.

Ironically, some of the same countries that are taking credit for talking India and Pakistan away from the brink of war are the ones arming both sides.

US policymakers defend arms sales as a way to secure a growing relationship with India and Pakistan. The key, they say, is to balance the short-term goal of working with Pakistan's military to rout out Al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan with the longer-term goal of building close ties with both India and Pakistan.

But here in South Asia, as elsewhere, building ties means selling weapons to friends, and experts say that adding arms to this already unstable region risks unintended and undesirable effects.

"Any provision of weapons to either country is regrettable, mainly because they will use them only against each other," says Brian Cloughley, author of "The Pakistan Army: Nuclear Risk-Reduction in Kashmir." "Both nations are spending far too much on arms, but nothing that anyone can say will stop that happening."

The buying spree has indeed been staggering. India has purchased $8.2 billion worth of arms over the past decade. Over the same period, Pakistan has spent nearly $1.7 billion on jet fighter aircraft, artillery guns, armored vehicles, battle tanks, and surface-to-air missiles.

While the US is the largest arms supplier in the world - it sold $281 billion worth in 2001 - Russia and China provide most of those used in South Asia. Russia supplies 72 percent of India's imported weapons, and China supplies nearly one-third of Pakistan's weapons imports.

Still, some experts on arms transfers say that the US and Britain, by selling even a modicum of high-tech weaponry in South Asia, may be unintentionally fueling the arms race. The British government recently admitted plans to sell its Hawk trainer aircraft, which can be retrofitted to become full jet fighters. Some Hawk components are produced in the US, which gives the country the right to veto the aircraft's sale to a particular nation; so far it has not.

Instead, last week the US announced that it has eased its restrictions on selling weapons to India; US officials also say they have begun a long-term program to train Pakistani troops in counterinsurgency, and to transfer high-tech hardware for use in the war on terrorism.

For years, US policy in South Asia has tilted toward Pakistan, the smaller of the two nations created after British colonial rule ended in 1947. Pakistan was seen as a strategic bulwark against Soviet expansion in Central Asia. India, led by the socialist-leaning Jawaharlal Nehru, was kept at a distance.

Even into the 1990s, the US favored Pakistan, selling some $405 million worth of arms to Islamabad over the past decade; New Delhi has received a paltry $10 million worth.

Still, over the past decade, the US has improved economic and strategic relations with India, a country that it used to see as a hostile Soviet ally. Over the same period, the country has cooled relations toward Pakistan, which it has begun to see as a corrupt Islamist state.

History has made this transfer of alliances less than smooth. In 1998, both India and Pakistan defied international advice and tested nuclear weapons. Following this, the US imposed trade sanctions on both countries. But after Sept. 11, the US reopened relations with them both. US officials call Pakistan an "indispensable ally" in the war against the Taliban and Al Qaeda; they call India a "long-term strategic ally in South Asia."

"For the Americans, the war on terrorism is the first priority, and everything else is not important," says Siemon Wezeman, an arms-trade expert at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. "They are supporting their allies, no matter how badly those countries behave."

"On one hand, it's a shortsighted policy," he says, "but on the other hand, it is at least a policy, unlike Russia and France, which just want to sell the weapons, whatever the consequences."

But even supporters of American policy say that there are potential conflicts between America's short- and long-term goals in the region. "You can't avoid selling things that will help one side against the other, so you try to avoid selling big-ticket items," says Dennis Kux, a retired South Asia specialist at the US State Department and now a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. "In zero-sum games, it's very difficult."

In Pakistan, there are already signs of strain in US-Pakistani military cooperation. Last week, a Pakistani spokesman said the recent US move to facilitate arms sales to India would not serve the cause of peace in the region. And in the country's Oct. 10 national elections, a coalition of conservative religious parties - some of them with ties to the Taliban - won enough seats to put their chief leader, Fazlur Rahman, into the prime minister's seat this month. These parties campaigned against US "interference" in Pakistan, and have been among the strongest advocates for jihad against India.

"Pakistan's capacity for self-delusion is almost unlimited," says Sumit Ganguly, a South Asia strategic expert at the University of Texas at Austin. "The assumption is that, like Blanche Dubois, they can always depend on the kindness of strangers - and when we sell arms to Pakistan, we are playing into this self-delusion."

Yet India is also capable of self-delusion, Dr. Ganguly says, noting that Indian officials were shocked when the US pushed India to negotiate with Pakistan over Kashmir after both countries came to the brink of war last spring.

The key, Ganguly says, is for the US to sell only defensive weapons to both countries. "If the US supplies Pakistan with offensive capabilities, India will not only go defensive but also go abroad and get offensive weapons itself. If the US supplies F-16 [jet fighters] or tanks to Pakistan, then any US military cooperation with India would be at risk."

If there is a single weapons issue with the most potential for destabilizing the power balance in South Asia, it is the ongoing sale of high-tech radar and missile defense systems from Israel to India. Using a combination of unmanned drones and combat aircraft radar - largely dependent on US technology - India hopes to nullify Pakistan's nuc-lear weapons potential with the capability to shoot down incoming ballistic missiles.

Some experts worry that if India has no fear of Pakistan's nuclear weapons, it may be emboldened to launch attacks on its rival. "The only thing that stops an Indian attack is probably Pakistan's inventory of nuclear weapons," says Mr. Wezeman. "If their rival's weapons can't be delivered to India, then the principal of deterrence disappears, and the possibility of war increases."

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