Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, May/June 2005, page 36

The Subcontinent

Washington Opens Up Its Military Hardware Shop to Both India and Pakistan

By M.M. Ali

Reactions differed to Washington’s decision to allow India to buy F-18s, import nuclear technology for peaceful purposes, receive anti-ballistic missile systems, and enter into deals with U.S. arms manufacturers to set up similar plants in India—and, finally, approve the delivery of F-16s to Pakistan. As expected, Islamabad welcomed the U.S. decision to release the F-16 aircraft. After all, it had paid for the fighter jets more than two decades ago, in 1983, but delivery of the planes was blocked by the Pressler Amendment, passed in response to Pakistan’s acquisition of nuclear weapons technology. Also as expected, Delhi lodged a formal protest against the supply of F-16s to Pakistan.

In order to soften the Indian response, President George W. Bush telephoned Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to personally assure him that this decision will pose no threat to peace in the subcontinent. In a March 26 interview with The Washington Post, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice explained the administration’s position: “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 has to be bad for India or vice versa.”

The U.S. government subsequently has explained that in the short run it considers Pakistan “a crucial ally” in the fight against international terrorism, and in the long run would like to see India become a major player in international affairs. For its part, Washington appears willing to downplay its insistence on establishing democracy as a prerequisite to receiving U.S. assistance, now taking a more pragmatic approach in tailoring its policies to match the realities on the ground. Nevertheless, in an April 2 editorial The Washington Post argued that Musharraf was being granted too many concessions.

Neither nuclear neighbor can afford to refuse Washington’s offer. Pakistan, of course, has no option but to welcome it. But India must weigh it carefully, keeping in mind the examples of China and the Soviet Union. The former, it will be remembered, took the peaceful road on its way to economic solvency and military might, while the U.S.S.R. chose massive military expenditures over economic viability—a decision for which it paid a heavy price. A decision by India, which has a way to go before it attains economic viability, to rush toward inordinate military spending can prove to be costly. Even accepting large-scale foreign aid could be ill advised.

The offer has confused India and Pakistan about Washington’s intentions.

Official explanations aside, Washington’s decision represented an attempt not to tip the military scales between the subcontinent’s two nuclear-powered rivals. As “the world’s only superpower,” the U.S. for the first time enjoys extraordinary leverage with India and Pakistan alike. Other reports, however, speculate that the aid package was intended to provide much-needed economic relief to the U.S. aircraft industry, which is in serious crises. Nor would this be the first time the United States has framed its foreign policy to suit domestic needs.

While it is true that the impact of the U.S. offer probably will not be felt for another two to three years, when the U.S. military hardware actually is delivered, it nevertheless has confused India and Pakistan about Washington’s intentions. Sane circles wonder if the Cold War logic of “mutually assured destruction” (MAD) that dissuaded the Soviet Union and United States from going to war would similarly apply to India and Pakistan. Some think this a gamble not worth taking in an environment constantly charged with suspicions and misgivings. Peace, after all, can be breached at short notice—and with grave consequences.

Confidence-Building Measures

The Confidence Building Measures (CBM) undertaken by Delhi and Islamabad have resulted in certain welcome developments, such as the exchange of official and unofficial political and cultural delegations and the Pakistani cricket team’s tour of India. Most significant is the opening of the bus route connecting the cities of Muzzafarabad (under Pakistan control) and Srinagar (under Indian control) in the disputed state of Jammu & Kashmir. With the exception of the Baglihar dam—which India is constructing in the portion of Kashmir under its control, and which Pakistan has protested, appealing to the World Bank for arbitration under the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty—both the countries appear to be willing to soften relations. How far CBMs will go and how long the trend will continue is anyone’s guess—even Washington’s, which remains on the sidelines silently playing cheerleader and watching developments.

Musharraf’s Woes Not Over

As Pakistani troops continue to round up suspected Taliban and Al-Qaeda members in South Wazirastan, a treacherous terrain between Pakistan and Afghanistan, another area inside Pakistan literally has challenged Islamabad’s authority. Much of the underdeveloped province of Baluchistan, the country’s largest, is controlled by various tribes, including the Marris, Mengals, Bizenjos, Achakzais and Bughtis. The area is rich in resources, including natural gas, and a pipeline that supplies gas to the rest of Pakistan traverses Bughti land controlled by Nawab Akber Bughti. The pipeline has been blown up several times, and army units and constabulary recently were ambushed, with several killed. Islamabad has opted to build the Gwadar port on the coast of Baluchistan and set up cantonments to station troops and better administer the area. The government has been forced to negotiate with Akber Bughti for peace, and the problem is far from resolved.

Also restless is Pakistan’s religious right, headed by the Mutahidda Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), which gained prominence after the most recent elections. Political rallies and protest marches have demanded an end to military intervention in the country’s political affairs and real empowerment of the National Assembly. The movement is gaining momentum and, if unchecked, could seriously challenge the authority of President Pervez Musharraf. Because the MMA currently lacks cohesive leadership, it is unable to deliver a knockout punch. Meanwhile, rumblings are being heard from abroad that former Prime Minister Mian Nawaz Shareef (in Jeddah) is flexing his political muscles, and that his predecessor, Benazir Bhutto (in Dubai/London), also is planning to return home. It remains to be seen whether Musharraf will use the Nawaz and/or Bhutto card to blunt the challenge posed by the MMA. The general realizes this is a dangerous game to play and that things can get out of hand in the blink of an eye. 

Prof. M.M. Ali is a specialist on South Asia based in the Washington, DC metropolitan area.

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