The US-Pak weapons deal: No bang for the bucks

Indian Express, August 17 2006

The Bush administration has justified its decision to sell 36 F-16 Falcon fighter jets to Pakistan on grounds that it would increase US “access and influence” in Islamabad.

Pakistan’s military regime, which will incur a debt of $ 5 billion to purchase the planes made by Lockheed Martin, considers the deal a boost for Pakistan’s security. Close examination of the deal and of the history of similar US-Pakistan deals indicates that the stated goals of neither the US nor the Pakistani rulers are likely to be advanced with the F-16 purchase.

If anything, the F-16s are a pay off from Washington for General Pervez Musharraf’s military regime – a sort of “toys for the boys” gift – that is expected to extend the regime’s survival. That is all that concessional arms transfers under previous pro-US Pakistani military regimes have achieved

Let us first look at the F-16 deal from the perspective of Pakistani national security. Not long ago, General Pervez Musharraf declared that the greatest threat to Pakistani security comes from extremist ideologues and terrorists within the country.

Domestic extremism in Pakistan would be fought more effectively with investment in the neglected social sectors. Five billion dollars could go a long way in expanding education, healthcare and poverty alleviation programs.

If the purpose is to locate and liquidate hardened terrorists, the F-16 Falcon is not the best weapon to identify, isolate or even kill individual terrorists. Most major Al-Qaeda figures arrested in Pakistan and handed over to the US were arrested in major Pakistani cities.

The F-16’s sophisticated air-to-air, air-to-surface and anti-ship missiles have little to contribute in the battle in the neighbourhoods of Westridge, Rawalpindi (where Khalid Shaikh Muhammad was found) or Defence Society, Karachi (where Ramzi bin Al-Shibh was caught). They have limited value in Waziristan or other tribal areas on the Afghan border.

Pakistan’s traditional security threat is believed to come from India but here too Pakistan will not get a bang for its buck. The Pentagon’s statement accompanying notification of the F-16 sale to the US Congress has stated unequivocally that Pakistan’s F-16 purchase would “not significantly reduce India’s quantitative or qualitative military advantage” and that it would neither affect the regional balance of power nor introduce a new technology in the region.

Mr John Hillen, the US assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs told a recent congressional hearing that the version of the plane being sold to Pakistan “will not be nuclear capable” and explained that the Pentagon’s notification to Congress had “enumerated the technologies that were not, that would usually go with an F-16, that are not part of this deal.”

According to Mr Hillen, these withheld technologies “include ones that would allow the F-16 to be used in offensive ways to penetrate airspace of another country that was highly defended.”

If the F-16 will not enhance Pakistan’s military capability against domestic terrorism or confer it some qualitative or quantitative advantage in its unfortunate perennial conflict with India, why add to Pakistan’s debt burden for such expensive jets? Mr Hillen’s explanation, repeated in private and public conversations by other American officials, focuses on US influence over Pakistan.

The military is the most powerful institution in Pakistan and military sales, backed by large American credits, are a means of pleasing the Pakistani military. This, in turn, is supposed to secure leverage for the United States.

The US has dreamt of leverage over Pakistan’s foreign policy in return for military equipment and economic aid ever since the days of the cold war alliances, SEATO and CENTO.

Contrary to the assumption of American officials that military aid translates into leverage, Pakistan’s military has always managed to take military aid without ever fully giving the United States what it desires.

If Pakistan’s security policy was determined by a representative government and not by a Praetorian army, the ability to make independent foreign policy decisions would be a good thing from Pakistan’s point of view even if that is not what the Americans seek.

But given the ascendancy of the military in Pakistan’s decision-making, the military aid relationship with Washington has become a contributing factor to Pakistan’s internal dysfunction.

The availability of weapons systems that enhance the Pakistani military’s prestige and therefore its ability to continue to dominate national life — offered by the US to secure limited Pakistani cooperation in US grand strategy— allows Pakistan’s military rulers to believe that they can continue to promote risky domestic, regional, and pan-Islamic policies. It undermines the Pakistani military’s willingness to negotiate realistically with India without bolstering Pakistan’s actual military prowess against its much larger neighbour.

The people of Pakistan, and the long-term US-Pakistan relationship, would benefit far more if Washington made it clear that its support for Pakistan’s security would be contingent upon Pakistan having an elected government that determines Pakistan’s real security needs in a transparent manner.