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US Uses Arms Sales To Strengthen Ties with South Asian Regional Rivals

The Bush administration announced last week it would sell F-16 warplanes to Pakistan. But often overlooked was the simultaneous announcement that the United States would also sell arms, including F-16s, to India. The United States is engaged in a delicate balancing act in South Asia.

The real surprise about the U.S. offer to sell some F-16 warplanes to Pakistan, say analysts of South Asian affairs, was India's relatively muted reaction to the move.

President Bush took the step of calling Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to alert him to the upcoming announcement. And India also got a U.S. pledge that it, too, would be allowed to purchase arms, including F-16s.

Sumit Ganguly, director of the Indian Studies program at Indiana University at Bloomington, says that because of those actions, the reaction from New Delhi was less vocal than might have been expected in the past. "Consequently, while the Indians are somewhat piqued and irritated by the renewal of an arms transfer relationship with Pakistan, much of the sting of this message has actually been removed," he said.

A South Asia analyst at the U.S. Institute of Peace, Christine Fair, says India gains in the deal as well because Washington is trying to bolster its renewed relationship with New Delhi. "India is in some sense the long-term winner in all of this," she said. "Obviously, India gets a lot of stuff as well. But over the long term India is very much our partner. If you look at the kinds of stuff that the Indian military is doing with the U.S. military, it is qualitatively different than the stuff that the United States is doing with the Pakistan military."

Ms. Fair says the United States is engaged in a broader range of military training and exercises with India than it is with Pakistan.

The sale to Pakistan is seen in many quarters as gratitude to its president, General Pervez Musharraf, for his help in fighting terrorism, especially in flushing out Taleban and al-Qaida remnants along the Pakistani-Afghan border.

But Terence Taylor, head of the U.S. office of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, says more is involved than a mere thank you gesture. "I think there's more substance than a thank-you. I think General Musharraf, although president of Pakistan, needs to demonstrate to his military that their fight against terrorism is recognized, that the military are getting the equipment they need - they've had a longstanding need for this type of aircraft. And so I think it helps stability in a sense in Pakistan, and in particular President Musharraf's relations with his own military," he said.

But Sumit Ganguly of Indiana University says there is concern in New Delhi about how the arms sale might affect President Musharraf's attitude toward India. "There is a worry in Indian circles that this might send a wrong message to Musharraf, who might basically think he has carte blanche from the United States to pretty much offer or not offer the Indians what he wants," he said. "In my view, this would be a serious mistake on the part of General Musharraf, but hardly unknown on the part of military regimes."

Pakistan has long wanted F-16s to bolster its aging air fleet. But an order of 28 of the jets was halted in 1990 under a bill sponsored by then-Senator Larry Pressler, a Republican from South Dakota. The Pressler Amendment barred U.S. military exports to Pakistan if it was suspected of having a nuclear weapon. Since then both India and Pakistan have conducted nuclear tests.

Pakistan greatly resented the law, feeling that it had been used by the United States as a proxy in fighting the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, then unceremoniously spurned. Jamsheed Marker, a former Pakistani ambassador to the United States, says the current sale will help to heal the wounds left by Washington's hot-and-cold policy toward Islamabad.

"It's always been an up-and-down affair. There's always been - certainly in Pakistan - an element of doubt about the long-term sincerity of this relationship. And, as I said, I think this will go a long, long way towards settling that in a satisfactory manner, in a favorable fashion. In other words, I think it will help turn opinion in Pakistan," he said.

Former Senator Larry Pressler remains adamantly opposed to any arms transfers to Pakistan. In a VOA telephone interview, he says F-16 sales have nothing to do with fighting terrorism. "I am opposed to it because I don't see any relationship between the F-16s and terrorism. Now, we have repaid Pakistan many times over for the assistance that Pakistan gave us," he said. "However, Pakistan has done some things against us. They proliferated nuclear weapons to Libya, [North] Korea, and lots of other places."

The sales must still have approval from the U.S. Congress. But as Terence Taylor points out, the fact that Congress is controlled by Republicans probably means there will no repeat of a Pressler-type bid to halt arms sales to Pakistan.