F-16 deal: S. Asia's new arms race?

Pakistan got its long-waited US jet sale Friday. But India also got a green light for US weapons.

In a move seen as rewarding Pakistan as a key ally in its war on terror, the United States agreed Friday to sell the South Asian nation F-16 fighter jets - reversing a 15-year ban.

Bush administration officials simultaneously announced that India would have the opportunity to buy some of the latest American combat aircraft.

The steps are seen as politically bolstering Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf at home, and indicate a shift in US policy toward a tacit acceptance of Pakistan and India as nuclear powers, analysts say.

"It will help Musharraf counter the religious extremists who used to taunt that America is not trustworthy as it had walked off after first Afghan War and may change the perception of common man [toward the US] as well," says analyst Tauseef Ahmed.

Talat Masood, a defense analyst and a retired military general, says that the deal "shows that there is a trust and credibility between the relationship of Washington and Islamabad. It will be very well received in Pakistan's armed forces and will reduce anti-American sentiments prevailing in the country. It will give a boost to the military and political relationship between the two sides."

Pakistan is initially expected to buy some two dozen state-of-art F-16 warplanes. "It will qualitatively enhance the capacity of the Air Force and the armed forces of Pakistan," says Mr. Masood.

The relationship between President Musharraf and the Bush Administration has strengthened since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the US. Washington has already extended its help in rescheduling debt, and last year announced a $3.1 billion military and economic package, plus financial assistance for education reforms.

Other military sales have been made since 9/11, but the sale of F-16 was apparently delayed because of India's apprehensions. Diplomatic sources say the proposed plan was discussed with Indian and Pakistani leadership during a visit by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice early this month.

On Friday, Mr. Bush called Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh about his decision to lift the ban on the sale of F-16 aircraft to Pakistan. Prime Minister Singh expressed India's "great disappointment," according to Sanjya Baru, a spokesman for the prime minister.

But Sunday India's defense minister, Prana Mukherjee, told Indian reporters, "If the military and other weapons needed for our national interest are available from the United States, we will certainly consider them."

India has traditionally purchased military hardware from the former Soviet Union, and its aging fleet 1,500 fighter jets are mostly Soviet-era MiG-21s.

Pakistan's foreign minister, Khurshid Kasuri, said that its purchase of F-16 must be seen in the context of the conventional asymmetry between Pakistan and India. "India has a 1,150,000-strong Army while Pakistan has half that strength. India is ahead of Pakistan in terms of defense expenditure and personnel numbers."

"We are very serious about peace with India, but the balance of strength is also necessary," Mr. Kasuri said.

Pakistani officials say the F-16 sale will not create an imbalance of defense capabilities and cite the recent reports that India has contracted to buy the Phalcon early-warning radar system from Israel, and the anti-missile Patriot system from the US.

Many in Pakistan say the US decision is a welcome departure from Washington's policy of the past. In the 1980s, when Islamabad was fighting alongside America to defeat Soviet troops in Afghanistan, it had agreed to sell 28 F-16 planes to Pakistan. But after the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, President George H. W. Bushbarred the sale because of Pakistan's emerging nuclear weapons program. The relationship worsened after Washington slapped sanctions on Islamabad and Delhi after each conducted nuclear tests in 1998.

"Like the decision to hold back the F-16s, the latest, too, seems from a radical shift in America's foreign policy priorities. If the decision not to sell the F-16 resulted from the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, followed by the collapse of the USSR, and the end of the cold war, this has to do with America's war on terror," the prestigious Pakistani newspaper, DAWN, editorialized Sunday. "The terrorist attacks on New York and Washington in September 2001 and the US decision to attack Taliban-led Afghanistan turned Pakistan once again into a frontline state," it said.

But some worry that the sale marks the start of new US-fueled arms race between South Asia's rival nuclear powers - and a time when peace initiatives are under way. President Musharraf plans to visit India next month - for the first time in four years. "Both the countries are poor and have spent enough money on their defense budgets. Now America with recent military initiatives accepted them as nuclear powers. Now ideally South Asia should be made a nuclear-free zone, and the recent peace moves between Pakistan and India be converted into long-lasting peace," says peace activist, Baseer Naveed.

Former Sen. Larry Pressler (R) of North Dakota - who authored the law that that cancelled the original F-16 deal and now sits on the board of an Indian technology company - called the lifting of the ban an "atrocity." He added that Pakistan, unlike India, wasn't a democracy. The move "gives Pakistan a delivery vehicle for its nuclear weapons."

Material from the wire services was used in this story.

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