Besides the need to continue to retain Pakistan's support in the hunt for al-Qaida and Taliban terrorists, the US is acutely aware of the fragility of the Musharraf regime in the face of Islamist hardliners in the army, in particular, and the country, at large. The US is planning to cooperate with the Indian Navy through its Honolulu-based Pacific Command, and with the Pakistan Navy through its Central Command.
While India’s sharp reaction to a new US arms package for Pakistan is justifiable, it does not call for undue worry — yet
The US’ recent announcement of an arms package to Pakistan is neither the first nor the last of its kind. The US had co-opted Pakistan as a frontline state in its Cold War against communism and armed it with Patton tanks, F-86 Sabre jet fighters and F-104 Starfighters, among other weapons and equipment. All were used against India.
US-Pakistani cooperation was further expanded when the erstwhile Soviet Union occupied Afghanistan. In the 1980s, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) inundated Pakistan with weapons to be given to the Afghan mujahideen. The weaponry included shoulder-fired Stinger surface-to-air missiles, some of which were recovered by the Indian army from Pakistan’s terrorist mercenaries in Kashmir. However, as soon as the last Soviet tank left Afghan soil, the US dropped Pakistan like a hot potato and slapped sanctions on it.
The punition didn’t last. After 9/11, the US has not only ignored Pakistan’s nuclear proliferation, but also its emergence as the new hub of Islamist fundamentalist terrorism. It has also tolerated Pakistan’s dictatorial regime because it suits US national interests in the war against terrorism. America’s designation of Pakistan as a Major Non-NATO Ally (MNNA) in March 2004, and the furtive manner in which the announcement was made, irritated Indian policy-planners: Indo-US relations had ostensibly started to improve, the “next steps in strategic partnership” (NSSP) had been announced two months previously in January 2004, and India was looking forward to a comprehensive engagement with the US. The first phase of the Indo-US strategic partnership has now been concluded, and the contours of the second phase are under negotiation. Given this, the sharp Indian reaction is hardly out of place.
The US views these arms sales as justified for several reasons. Besides the need to continue to retain Pakistan’s support in the hunt for al-Qaida and Taliban terrorists, the US is acutely aware of the fragility of the Musharraf regime in the face of Islamist hardliners in the army, in particular, and the country, at large. It sees President Musharraf as a stabilising force in a deeply-Islamicised army, and it feels that it must do all that it can to keep him in power. Also, the US is extremely concerned about Pakistan’s nuclear weapons falling into jihadi hands in the event of an Islamist coup. This is the reason for the frequent armament infusions, which include the eight Orion maritime surveillance aircraft, Phalanx gun systems, and the 2,000 TOW antitank-cum-bunker-busting missiles. India and Pakistan are among the world’s largest arms buyers, and no US administration can neglect its own military-industrial complex.
Although the Orion reconnaissance aircraft will make things relatively more difficult for the Indian Navy, they do not pose a direct new threat. The proposed sale suggests a US design to engage the Pakistan Navy in joint reconnaissance and patrolling of the Gulf sea lanes. A similar exercise is being undertaken with the Indian Navy in the southern Bay of Bengal and the Malacca Straits. The US is planning to cooperate with the Indian Navy through its Honolulu-based Pacific Command, and with the Pakistan Navy through its Central Command. Such an arrangement will also Keep the Indian and Pakistan navy on a leash and from launching joint operations and undertakIng search, seizure and rescue operations together.
If India wishes to influence US arms sales decisions, it must develop adequate leverages to make the US consider pros and cons very carefully. The acid test of US sincerity will lie in its decision on the long-pending supply of F-16 fighter aircraft that Pakistan has already paid for but not yet received. The supply of these aircraft will certainly enhance the strike capabilities of the Pakistan Air Force, although the Indian Air Force (IAF) will continue to enjoy both qualitative and quantitative superiority. In the (unlikely) event that the US decides to go ahead with the F-16 sales, India would be justified in perceiving the move as an attempt to balance the US’ strategic partnership with India by, once again, propping up Pakistan as a regional challenger.
Till then, the Orion aircraft must be seen as nothing more than additional lucrative targets on the tarmac of the Karachi airbase for the IAF and the army’s Special Forces commandos. And there Is some comfort in the fact that history has often had Uncle Sam’s warm hug ending up as a kiss of death.