More Arms Are Not What India and Pakistan Need

Selig S. Harrison, director of the Asia program at the Center for International Policy, is a former South Asia bureau chief for the Washington Post.

Washington wants to encourage the search for a South Asian peace that was launched by Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee of India and President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan at their January summit. But the Bush administration could poison the atmosphere for India-Pakistan talks that start Monday if it goes ahead with imminent plans for major military sales to both countries.

President Bush promised Musharraf $1.5 billion in new military aid last June on top of $400 million that had been set aside for military sales to Islamabad after Pakistan signed up as a U.S. ally against Al Qaeda.

In the name of bolstering military operations against Al Qaeda and Taliban forces in Afghan border areas, Pakistan is pressing for immediate military deliveries instead of the five-year program envisaged by the White House. But most of the desired hardware -- such as 80 attack helicopters, 1,000 armored personnel carriers and two squadrons of F-16 aircraft -- would be used on the Indian border, not in Afghanistan. Giving them to Pakistan now would rekindle tensions between New Delhi and Islamabad just when the fragile peace process is getting underway.

The United States should freeze military transfers indefinitely to Pakistan and India until domestic political support for a detente is solid enough in both countries to neutralize the tensions that would be touched off by new military aid. This should include a delay in authorizing Israel’s pending sale to New Delhi of the Arrow antimissile system, which was developed in cooperation with the United States.

Musharraf’s domestic political position is shaky in the aftermath of the recent scandal over illicit nuclear deals by Pakistani scientists with North Korea, Iran and Libya, and the sale of the Arrow would strengthen the opponents of detente.


In the case of India, Vajpayee is campaigning for a new five-year term in April elections. His opponents would use U.S. military sales to Pakistan to fan fears of Islamabad and rekindle memories of the massive Cold War infusion of U.S. military hardware to earlier military regimes there.

The Pentagon spin that U.S. military help for Islamabad would relate only to the war on terror sounds to Indian ears like President Eisenhower’s 1954 reassurances that a program of “limited” U.S. weapons aid to Pakistan would be solely for use against the Soviet Union and China. By 1965, the United States had poured $3.8 billion in military hardware into Pakistan. This encouraged the Pakistani military dictator, Gen. Ayub Khan, to stage cross-border raids in Kashmir that touched off a wider war in which his forces freely used its U.S. planes and tanks.

No sooner had India begun to forgive and forget than the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan led to another outpouring of weapons aid to pay off Islamabad for serving as a “front-line state.”

With its new F-16 aircraft and heavy tanks, this second aid package was clearly not intended for use on the mountainous Afghan border but rather to bolster Pakistan’s balance of power in plains warfare with India. Still more U.S. weapons channeled through Pakistan to Afghan resistance forces were skimmed off for Pakistani use.

In a striking repeat of history, the type of military aid that Pakistan is now seeking has less to do with Afghanistan than India. Islamabad’s wish list includes the Predator aerial spy plane used by the United States in Afghanistan, Hawkeye mini-AWACs, AIM-9 missiles and P3 anti-submarine aircraft.

In addition to military aid, Bush’s promises in June included $1.5 billion in economic assistance.

This aid should be provided, but with two conditions: Musharraf’s cooperation with the United States in preventing the leakage of nuclear material and weapons to terrorist groups and rogue states -- so far refused -- and a commitment to negotiate confidence-building measures relating to India-Pakistani nuclear weaponry in the peace talks.

India, eight times larger than Pakistan, is much more important to long-term American interests, and the two nations should not be equated in U.S. policy.

The Bush administration’s January announcement that it plans to expand high-tech cooperation with India, including cooperation in civilian nuclear and space technology, was a welcome recognition of what the White House called a new “strategic partnership” with New Delhi.

On military matters, however, the United States should proceed with caution, especially while peace talks are still at a delicate stage.