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Why is the US indulging Pakistan?

By Ramananda Sengupta
Last updated on: April 01, 2005 12:55 IST
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Instead of sneering, we whined.

Washington's decision to sell F16s to Pakistan could hardly have come as a surprise to India.

Let us for a moment ignore the possible American motivations -- economic, political, strategic, a combination of all three, or plain old myopic greed -- behind the move, and focus instead on our reaction to it.

First, we complained that it would spark off an arms race in the region.

As if such a race wasn't already on. As if the Americans hadn't heard that argument ad nauseam from us right from the time Washington publicly announced it was considering the move late last year.

Then, when Washington responded by offering similar, if not 'better', aircraft and hinted at other goodies -- like the possible transfer of hitherto barred dual use technology for civilian nuclear use -- to India, we said we would be happy to consider it.

For effect, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice claimed that: 'If you look at it in terms of the region, what we are trying to do is break out of the notion that this is a hyphenated relationship somehow, that anything that happens that is good for Pakistan is bad for India, and vice versa.'

Not so politely reminding India of its plaintive and repeated pleas to the world that it not be seen through the prism of India-Pakistan relations.

Of course, she forgot to mention that what's 'good' for Pakistan and India in this case is also good for the multi-billion dollar American defence industry.

As for the hint at amending US laws to enable it to sell dual use technology to India, I don't see Congress and the Senate agreeing to such legislation anytime soon.

Why is Washington so keen to prop up General Pervez Musharraf's illegitimate government?

More importantly, why is Washington keen to give Pakistan weapons which can only be used against India?

The standard US response to the first question is that Pakistan under Pervez Musharraf has become a 'frontline ally' in President George W Bush's war against terror, and that he needs all the help he can get.

Washington has obviously bought Musharraf's repeated assertions that only he can protect Pakistan's nuclear arsenal from falling into the hands of the mad mullahs, who have shown scant regard for human lives, including their own. Grist for the favorite American nightmare: a suicide bomber armed with a nuclear weapon.

The second question, however, is one that American officials usually steer clear off, vaguely asserting when pressed that Pakistan needs to be propped up and reassured about US intentions, and that a 'strong Pakistan is in US -- and Indian -- interests.'

It is argued that by agreeing to the sale of F16s to Pakistan, Washington is trying to wipe out the impression in Pakistan that it was treated as 'toilet paper' by the Americans after the Soviets left Afghanistan 1988.

The impression that Pakistan was 'used' by the US only when it was needed, like during the Cold War as an intelligence base, and for conducting backdoor talks with the Chinese before Richard Nixon's historic visit to Beijing in February 1972. And now in the war on terror.

In other words, that Washington was nice to Pakistan when there was convergence of interests.

So what is the 'convergence of interest' at the moment?

War on terrorism?

The US certainly knows that Pakistan is a breeding ground for most of the world's terrorist outfits, supplying both cheap manpower from its madrasas as well as money and training from the zealots -- who are not always necessarily Pakistani -- who oppose Western notions of democracy.

Unlike in Iraq, this time the Americans decided to work from within.

In the garb of friendship and amity, the Central Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency and a whole heap of other American intelligence agencies have virtually made Pakistan -- or at least its major cities -- their personal fiefdom.

Their agenda: To identify and contain the terrorist and extremist networks, which still operate with impunity within, across and outside Pakistan.

If the Americans have their way, very soon, it will be impossible for anyone to enter or leave Pakistan without clearance from American spooks.

Very soon, Washington hopes, the madrasas which spawn radicals and feed the various jihadi movements will be replaced with modern educational institutions. Despite the fact that the ruling Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal in the frontier provinces recently presented a bill that seeks to ban dance, music and photographs of women, among other things.

Very soon, Washington prays, Pakistan -- where a Bill against honor killings was rejected recently by hardliners in government -- will join the modern comity of nations, totally and absolutely dependent on the United States of America.

A possible spin-off, they hope, might be the eventual capture of Osama bin Laden or Mullah Omar.

But A Q Khan, the father of Pakistan's nuclear blackmarket, will remain off limits to the Americans, and the F16s are not going to change Musharraf's mind.

That's because Khan has him by the short hairs, having hidden evidence of Musharraf's implicit complicity in the nuclear deals with Iran, North Korea and Khan alone knows who else. And making it clear that if anything were to happen to him, such details would find their way to the international media.

On a simple strategic level, the growing American influence in Pakistan is aimed at re-securing a foothold for the US in the subcontinent, in a country which is far more pliable than India.

The US military and political presence in Pakistan is also expected to keep the Iranians and the Chinese unsettled.

In fact, as Seymour Hersh reported in The New Yorker, the US is already using Pakistan to launch spies into Iran to check out its nuclear facilities for a possible attack. While the Chinese are obviously going to be less than pleased with the increasing bon homie between Islamabad and Washington.

There are others who assert that America's strategy for the subcontinent is also aimed at keeping India relegated to a regional power, and that this aim is shared by both Pakistan and China, and hence China's muted response to the growing US influence in Islamabad.

India's quest for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council with that all powerful veto, or membership of the G8, will remain tantalisingly out of reach until there is a durable peace in the subcontinent.

Not just about F16s!

The American takeover of Pakistan is also aimed at securing access to a warm water port close to the oil and mineral rich Central Asian republics. With Afghanistan and Iraq under American control, (though the various jihadis and warlords in these two nations might not agree) the only fly in the ointment seems to be Iran.

Let's face it, a military regime in Pakistan is what President George W Bush needs in his war against terror. A civilian government might have had difficulties convincing the nation about the need to declare war on its own citizens, as Musharraf has ostensibly done in the provinces bordering Afghanistan.

Musharraf, of course, knows better.

He knows that the moment these US objectives are even partially achieved, Washington is likely to pressure him to step down and call genuine elections.

Is Musharraf indispensable?

Ergo, he is secure as long as terrorism thrives in his country. He is secure as long as he can keep India, and his own countrymen, guessing on the peace process, while at the same time convincing Washington about his good intentions.

But what has all this got to do with the US arming Pakistan with F16s and other hi-tech weaponry, which are obviously not meant for Al Qaeda and other assorted terrorist outfits hanging out in the country?

And why on earth is India making such a hullabaloo about the entire thing, while at the same time continuing to demand that New Delhi not be seen through the prism of India-Pakistan relations?

Are we so doubtful about the capability of the Indian Air Force?

F-16s no threat to IAF: Air Marshal Bhavnani

Before the 1971 war, India had made similar protestations over Pakistan's acquisition of American Sabres from the US. But in the final analysis, our humbler Hunters, Sukhois and Canberras prevailed.

This time, it's the numbers," a senior defence ministry official explained to me before the decision about the sale was formally made. If, he admitted ruefully, Washington were to accede to Pakistan's demand for 70 or more such aircraft, "we are in trouble."

But if, "as we expect, they get only 30, though we will still have to scramble, we can learn to live with it."

Another argument I hear is that India, secure in the superiority of its conventional forces, is not objecting per se to the sale of hi-tech American weaponry to Pakistan, but the fact that the acquisition of such weapons would strengthen the hands of the hardline elements in Pakistan, which in turn would reflect on the peace talks in progress.

India Pakistan peace talks

Horse manure.

The peace process has its own dynamics.

Whether they succeed or fail should not depend on the state of Pakistan's military, but on its willingness to accept that Kashmir is not its raison d'ĂȘtre, and on its willingness and ability to stop sponsoring terrorist activity in India.

If the road to peace depends on the military strength of each nation, then we might as well write it off, right here, right now.

As for the offer to sell Patriot missiles and F18s to India, it reminds me of the way the Israelis trained special forces of the Sri Lankan army as well LTTE cadres -- simultaneously -- in the early 1980s. Both, I believe, paid in cash.

Effectively, what I hear Washington saying is, both India and Pakistan can have our military hardware, as we laugh our way to the bank. If they want to nuke each other out of existence, it's their problem.

Except for a slight difference: Pakistan will get it in the form of 'aid.' Or at worst, get a deferred payment schedule.While India will have to be able to afford the overhyped Patriots, which are good against aircraft like F16s, though hardly the anti-missile system it is meant to be.

According to Lockheed Martin, which manufactures the planes, the following countries have F16s in their fleets: The US, Belgium, Denmark, Netherlands, Norway, Italy, Israel, Egypt, Korea, Pakistan, Venezuela, Turkey, Greece, Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, Bahrain, Portugal, Taiwan and Jordan.

No offence meant, but perhaps they couldn't afford (not financially, but politically) the new Sukhois, which outclasses the F16s and the F18s in almost every area.

External link: Su-30MKI compared with the F16C and F18E/F

A long time ago, futurologist Alvin Toffler had proposed that in order to prevent them from being used against American interests later, US warplanes and other high-tech weaponry sold to other nations be embedded with software which, when activated by remote control from the US, would cause them to self-destruct.

I am not sure whether the idea was actually implemented, but a friend of mine who has held senior positions in the Israeli Air Force once told me in a moment of candor they had found 'certain bugs' in their F16s, which they had subsequently 'rectified.'

Now don't get me wrong, I am not knocking the Americans. They are acting in their own interests.

We -- as in India and Pakistan -- should do the same. Should we accept the argument, put forward by none other than President Bush himself, that it is in America's interest to help India become a global power?

Or is it just another case of temporary convergence of interests?

Every nation has the right to acquire whatever it thinks is necessary for its own security.

The Americans have the right to sell whatever they want to whoever they want.

So does India.

I look forward to a day when we will sell arms to Pakistan. Now that would be the mother of all confidence building measures.

No, I am not suggesting that we give them the sticks to beat us with. Such sales will only arise if and when the two nations see each other as true partners, not enemies, so don't hold your breath.

I am told that at a arms fair in Dubai late last year, the Pakistani delegation made a beeline to check out -- and drool over -- the BrahMos, the Indo-Russian supersonic cruise missile.

A sign of things to come?

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Ramananda Sengupta