The $3 billion military and economic aid legal deal negotiated with Pakistan is the third major Us step in Southwest Asia intended to give credibility to then-President Carter's declaration in early 1980 that an attempt by an outside power to gain control of the Gulf area would be met "by any means necessary, including military force."
The warning, of course, was addressed to the Soviet Union. The overall weapon for deterring the Russians from exploiting to their advantage the critical situation in the vulnerable but oil-rich Gulf is to be the Rapid Deployment Force -- whose components are the subject of controversy and argument within the United States.
But whatever its components and command structure, the force needs to be in, or have immediate access to the Gulf area if it is to be effective or credible.
Paradoxically, most of the Gulf states want US protection and deterrence against a perceived Soviet threat. But they are reluctant for a variety of reasons to have an American presence on their soil. In effect, they are saying to Washington: "Keep your military presence below the horizon."
Yet the crucial need persists for the US to edge unprovocatively toward the area with an effectie blueprint capable of immediate implementation if the RDF is to be projected into the Gulf region rapidly.
The initial US move in this direction was the establishment of two US Navy carrier groups in the Indian Ocean at the approaches to the Gulf.
The second was the negotiation of agreements with Kenya, Somalia, Oman, and Egypt for the use of facilities for US sea and air forces. These would be vital in any eventual conflict. In the mean time they would be used to build up stores of US weapons and equipment as close as possible to the Gulf.
The difficulties and pitfalls faced by the US is developing a credible deterrent to the Russians in the Gulf region are brought home when it is recalled that so little has been achieved in that direction so far although it is 2 1/2 years since the collapse of the Shah's regime left a power vacuum in the Gulf region. And it is now 1 1/2 years since Soviet tanks, partly because of that vacuum, rolled into Afghanistan and put themselves only 350 miles from the crucial oil tanker bottleneck at the Strait of Hormuz.
With the Soviet presence thrust forward from the Oxus over the Hindu Kush to the Khyber Pass, Pakistan became overnight a frontline state. Soviet troops were on its border, at the gateway not only to the narrows at the foot of the Gulf, but also to the rich valley of the Indus and the entire Indian subcontinent.
The Carter administration early in 1980 was persuaded of the need to bring Pakistan into US defense planning for the area. For one thing, a move in this direction was firmly supported by Saudi Arabia, in many ways the center of US concern in the Gulf because of its primacy as an oil producer and a source of funds. For another, Pakistan has a wealth of manpower -- for in excess of any Arab land in the area -- and Pakistanis have a worthy record as spit-and-polish fighters. It was also self-evident that a weak Pakistan was an invitation to further Soviet expansion.
On the Pakistani side there was no reluctance to accept US aid, provided there was a big enough American commitment to afford Pakistan some measure of security if it came under immediate Soviet military pressure. The Pakistanis did not want to stick their necks out, provoke Moscow, and suddenly find themselves alone.
To feel safe, the Pakistanis wanted $3 billion in military and economic aid. The Carter administration offered $400 million. Pakistani President Zia ul-Haq Turned that down as "peanuts."
But the Reagan administration has been more forthcoming. It has now offered the $3 billion Pakistan wanted. This sum, according to the Economist of London, will be split evenly between reinforcing Pakistan's long border with Afghanistan and bolstering and modernizing the Pakistani armed forces generally. Most military analysts say this is an urgent need. The deal includes the sale of an unspecified number of sophisticated F-16 fighter bombers for which Pakistan will apparently pay. There will inevitably be speculation that Saudi Arabia will help President Zia find the money for this.
F-16s were used by the Israelis in their attack last week on Iraq's experimental nuclear center outside Baghdad. The supply of F-16s to Pakistan will almost certainly provoke protests to the Reagan administration from India, which so far has no aircraft of equal capability. India is already disturbed -- as the Carter administration was -- about Pakistan's reported proximity to developing a nuclear weapon of its own.
Some Indian zealots might advocate India's following Israel's example by taking out a potential foe's nuclear capability with a swift surgical air-strike. But while one should not underestimate Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's toughness -- after all she helped dismember East Pakistan from West Pakistan in 1971 -- Mrs. Gandhi can hardly want to do anything that would mortally weaken Pakistan as a buffer state between India and the Soviet forces now at the Khyber Pass. The Soviet Union is India's best friend among the superpowers, but having the Soviet Union on the Indian border is a different question altogether.
The Reagan administration is also likely to run into criticism in the US Congress for negotiating this big new aid deal with Pakistan. Consummation of the deal will require Congress's waiving the Symington Amendment, which inhibits US assistance to countries developing a nuclear potential of their own.
There may also be congressional criticism of any move to associate the US more closely with a military ruler such as General Zia. Admittedly, General Zia is not popular at home. But many outside observers see little immediate likelihood of Pakistan's being governed in the near future by anything but a combination of the military and civil-servi ce elite -- whether General Zia heads it or not.