In 1981, about two years after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, the United States provided General Zia-ul-Haq, Pakistan's military ruler, with $3.2 billion in loans and grants. The idea was to elicit Pakistan's help in ousting the Soviets from Afghanistan. Included in this package, at Pakistan's insistence, were 40 F-16 aircraft. India and human rights organizations in the United States argued that the aircraft could only serve one purpose: to launch a major conventional war with India. The sale went through anyway, with disastrous results. India turned to the Soviets for arms, kicking off an arms race on the subcontinent that ultimately led to Pakistan's clandestine nuclear weapons program.
Last week the Bush administration proposed repeating this mistake. It wants to divert funds earmarked for counterterrorism to upgrade Pakistan's fleet of F-16s. This would do little or nothing to strengthen the Pakistani military's counterterrorism capabilities. Instead, it would give the Pakistani Air Force greater strike capabilities against India. This would give India an incentive to hasten the on-going modernization of its air force and expand its capabilities, thereby precipitating a further arms buildup in the region.
Since September 11, 2001, the Bush administration has delivered close to $10 billion in economic and military assistance to the military regime of General Pervez Musharraf. As of late 2007, U.S. officials have been aware that a disproportionate segment of military assistance intended for counterterrorism has instead been diverted to acquiring military technology best suited for a war against India. Although India has not yet responded militarily to these Pakistani malfeasances, its patience is finite. If the Bush administration diverts counterterrorism funds to the enhancement of Pakistan's strike capabilities, New Delhi will be forced to reassess its growing strategic partnership with the United States.
Bolstering Pakistan's air force could not have come at a more inopportune moment in U.S.-South Asian relations. Just last week Prime Minister Singh braved unbridled parliamentary opposition designed to bring down his regime to ensure that his government could proceed apace with the U.S.-India civil nuclear agreement. To abruptly offer technology upgrades to the Pakistan's air power would be construed as a gratuitous insult to an emerging great power and a potential strategic partner. This decision will undermine Prime Minister Singh's resolve to forge a viable working relationship with the United States. His critics from both ends of the political spectrum will now gleefully caricature his seeming naïvete in reposing his trust in the United States. To protect his domestic flanks, Singh may now have to authorize the acquisition of 120 new long range strike aircraft to replace an aging Soviet-era fleet. He surely won't do his shopping in the United States.
The decision is also a setback to democracy in Pakistan. In February, General Musharraf's minions lost Pakistan's parliamentary elections and a coalition government came to power. This elected civilian government has yet to consolidate its position after nearly a decade of military rule. Removing critical funds intended to help stem the terror that threatens to engulf Pakistan and placing them at the disposal of a bloated military establishment is hardly conducive to the fostering of a working democracy.
The experience of the 1980s offers an object lesson to the United States. At that time, a number of analysts of South Asian security issues, both within and outside of government, quickly learned that substantial assistance intended for the Afghans made its way into the pockets of the Pakistani military establishment. Given the anti-Soviet crusade under way at the time, Congress kept mum; it was not about to challenge a popular president who was trying to stand up to the Communist foe. This time around, it would be tragic if Congress were to roll over for fear of seeming weak on terror. The costs are likely to be high.