Rekindling the Arms Race
The Bush Administration's decision to sell modern fighter jets to Pakistan demonstrates total contempt for history and dark designs for the future. The danger of precipitating a regional arms race, the irrelevance of the deal to the "war on terror," and the administration's willingness to deal with any nation that "plays ball" according to Washington's new rules form a triple threat to global stability that cannot be overestimated.
Of the many unfortunate legacies left by the Cold War, perhaps the most disruptive has been the widespread proliferation of U.S. and former Soviet weapons systems around the world. These weapons systems facilitate wars, revolutions, terrorism, and general conflict around the globe. The Stinger missiles given to the Mujahedeen during the Soviet-Afghan war have to be bought back at great cost, and when they cannot be found, even greater costs loom. In Iraq, cheap Soviet weapons are used to deadly effect against American soldiers. America has only sold the F-14 naval interceptor to one country; unfortunately, that country was Iran in the mid-1970s. Compared to Pakistan's government, even the Shah had a better track record of continuous rule and stability. When it comes to dealing with unstable allies, weapons deals tend to misfire.
The F-16 is a premier short to medium range dual-purpose fighter-bomber. In 1990, the United States imposed sanctions against Pakistan until it ceased its nuclear weapons programs. At the time, a number of older F-16s with less advanced capabilities had been delivered to the Pakistani air force. Although the F-16 is an older airframe, avionics upgrades and new weapons have expanded its applications to include extensive ground attack roles. It can be used to deliver nuclear weapons, which Pakistan possesses.
India responded to the sale with predictable -- and justifiable -- outrage. The F-16 is not the obvious defensive weapons platform that Pakistan claims it to be. Strategic planners can envision them emerging from hardened hangars to respond to an attack or flying below radar to deliver a massive first blow. It is well known that ambiguity in the offense/defense bias of a weapon system contributes to tensions between rival nations.
Further, the callous response of the Bush administration to a nuclear first-strike imbalance is that India would be able to buy the F-16 and the heavier and even more sophisticated F/A-18 fighter. This "solution" to a problem of Washington's making is tantamount to a new India-Pakistan arms race. It is disturbing that the American government can only conceive of a balance of power in terms of escalation. Suggestions that the fighters are necessary for Pakistan's role in the war against terrorists could not be more wrong. Pakistan cannot use F-16s to find Osama bin Laden in a tenement basement. It cannot use them to eliminate pro-Taliban factions in its military and law enforcement. Finally, it cannot use them to establish meaningful democracy within Pakistan's borders.
The F-16 deal is a naked payback from Washington for Pakistan's willingness to go through the motions of backing the "war on terror." Sometimes, not being openly hostile toward the United States has its rewards. Apart from its scattershot attempts to put on a show for the U.S. media, Pakistan's primary "achievement" in the war on terror was its supposed interception of the A.Q. Khan nuclear trafficking operation.
Khan, a national hero and the leading nuclear authority in Pakistan, was linked to nuclear technology transfers to North Korea, Iran, and Libya. A.Q. went on TV and "apologized." He was immediately pardoned by Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, who was "shocked" to learn that his celebrity government weapons designer had sold nuclear information. Congress finds the supposed oversight and quick resolution too incredible to take seriously, and it opposes the sale of the fighter-bombers. Despite his farce of an investigation, Musharraf is being handsomely rewarded.
Brought to power by a military coup and the target of two recent assassination attempts, Musharraf is living proof of the instability of Pakistani politics. The American government cannot continue to bet on his authoritarian rule for the long term.
New F-16s in the hands of an Islamist Pakistan is a scenario no American or Indian politician wants to contemplate, but that is precisely the situation that could emerge. Pakistan has a large and powerful anti-American, pro-Taliban faction that would love to own an American-made air force.