- The Washington Times - Friday, December 17, 2004

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, during a visit to India last week, said Washington plans to seek stronger military ties with New Delhi. But it was an impending arms deal with archrival Pakistan that dominated the attention of the Indian leaders, who warned the plan would affect peace talks in the region and the good will for the United States in India.

“The defense relationship [with India] is a strong one and something we intend to see is further knitted together as we go forward in the months and years ahead,” Mr. Rumsfeld said during the first visit by a senior U.S. official since President Bush’s re-election last month.

Mr. Rumsfeld avoided any comment on Washington’s proposal to sell Pakistan military equipment worth more than $1.2 billion and, more important, on reports that the United States is close to a decision to sell up to 25 F-16 fighter jets to that country.

The Pentagon notified Congress last month of the administration’s plan to sell Pakistan P-3C Orion surveillance aircraft, TOW-2A missiles and Phalanx guns for ships. This month Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf discussed the purchase of F-16s when he met Mr. Bush in Washington.

Hours before Mr. Rumsfeld arrived in New Delhi, India warned the United States the weapons sale would have a negative effect on U.S.-Indian relations.

“We have pointed out that the supply of arms to Pakistan, at a time when the India-Pakistan dialogue is at a sensitive stage, would have a negative impact,” Indian Foreign Minister Natwar Singh told Parliament.

Mr. Singh also said New Delhi has “cautioned” Washington against supplying F-16s to Pakistan, saying it would affect “the good will the U.S. enjoys in India, particularly as a sister democracy.”

On Capitol Hill, the strong Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans made its own effort this week to dissuade the Bush administration from selling advanced weapons and fighter jets to Pakistan.

Rep. Gary L. Ackerman, New York Democrat and co-chairman of the caucus, and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Florida Republican, have urged congressional colleagues to sign a letter urging Mr. Bush to stop the sale of F-16s to Pakistan.

“We firmly believe that such a sale would undermine our long-term strategic interests in South Asia and urge you not to grant a license for such a sale,” the letter said.

Pakistan termed the proposed arms purchase “modest,” and called New Delhi’s objections “disturbing.”

“We do not want to match India gun for gun, missile for missile, aircraft for aircraft,” a Pakistani government spokesman said this week.

On Monday, the U.S. ambassador to India, David Mulford, sought to allay Indian concerns about the arms sale to Pakistan and went a step further, offering high-range weapons to India as well.

“We would like to have a very important economic and military relationship with India. We would like to be a big supplier of military equipment to India,” Mr. Mulford told reporters.

“I don’t think any one of [the arms being sold to Pakistan] would change anything in the overall relations between India and Pakistan,” he said.

Mr. Mulford said India should “de-hyphenate” its relations with the United States from Pakistan. “It is important for both countries not to view all developments through the prism of the other country.”

Pakistan received its first 40 F-16 fighter jets between 1983 and 1987, largely in return for its help in fighting the Soviet occupation of neighboring Afghanistan.

In the following years Pakistan contracted to buy 71 more F-16s and paid $658 million for 28 jets that were ready for delivery, but the sale was stalled by the Clinton administration over Pakistan’s plans to develop a nuclear bomb.

After the Cold War, U.S. strategic interests in the region shifted. And when the dust settled following nuclear weapons tests by India and Pakistan in 1998, Washington accepted New Delhi as a strategic long-term ally in the region, leaving Pakistan in the lurch.

That policy changed after the September 11, 2001, attacks brought world attention back to Afghanistan, whose Taliban rulers had harbored Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda terrorists.

Pressed by the United States, Pakistan agreed to end its support for the Taliban. It has since worked with Washington in fighting and capturing al Qaeda terrorists. The new round of cooperation from Pakistan triggered a huge increase in economic and military aid to Islamabad.

During a visit there in March, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell announced that Washington planned to designate Pakistan a “major non-NATO ally for the purposes of our future military-to-military relations.”

Meanwhile, the strategic military ties with India have been growing through joint training, intelligence sharing and high-technology transfers.

The United States agreed in May 2003 to allow Israel to sell the advanced Phalcon airborne reconnaissance system to India in a deal worth $1 billion. Washington is also believed to be close to approving Israel’s transfer of the Arrow anti-missile system to India. Upgraded Patriot missile systems could be next on New Delhi’s wish list.

Privately, Indian officials say the new weapons for Pakistan will not substantially upset the military balance in the region. “We can deal with them,” an official said.

What worries New Delhi more, they say, is the effect of increased weapons supply on the U.S. plans to promote freedom, democracy and moderation and rid the region of Islamist terrorism.

They say the weapons being sold will not be useful in fighting terrorism but will strengthen the military rulers in Islamabad.

“What Pakistan needs is more educational and economic aid to help remove the root causes of Islamist extremism, not more weapons,” said a senior Indian official who requested anonymity.

Indian officials and South Asia watchers say the Bush administration’s short-term plans to reward and bolster Gen. Musharraf in reward for his help in fighting terrorism in Afghanistan could produce long-term damage.

“Short-term tactical considerations are all right, but they should not undermine long-term strategic objectives,” one official said.

Ashley J. Tellis, a South Asia analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, who worked as an adviser to former U.S. Ambassador to India Robert Blackwill and on Mr. Bush’s National Security Council, says the administration’s view is that the F-16s would form part of a package designed to simultaneously thank Gen. Musharraf and to encourage him to continue prosecuting the war on terrorism.

“That objective is understandable, but the strategy of arming Pakistan to achieve that objective is risky, because it could end up reinforcing the very Pakistani behaviors that we would like see changed — sheltering the Taliban, no progress towards democracy, supporting terrorism against India.”

Mr. Tellis said the consequences of the arms sales for India-Pakistan relations will be serious.

But “the real danger is that Musharraf will view the military aid component as a thank you for great things done, not as an incentive for him to make the hard decisions necessary down the line,” he said.

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