PAKISTAN'S decision to postpone the US-subsidized purchase of 77 nuclear-capable F-16 fighter planes from the ailing Lockheed-Martin Corporation provides an opportunity for the Bush administration and Congress to call off a disastrous deal that the United States should never have proposed in the first place.
In economic terms, it would be reckless for Pakistan to pile on new foreign debt by spending $3.5 billion on F-16s. Even before the earthquake, Pakistan was a poor country, with per capita gross national income of $600 per year. Pakistan ranked 68th out of 103 third world countries surveyed in the 2005 UN Poverty Index, which measures longevity, living standards, education, and health. Now, Islamabad will have to spend $5.8 billion in foreign earthquake aid just to avert further impoverishment, not to mention billions more in the decades ahead on long-overdue development programs.
For the United States, the damaging strategic consequences of the F-16 deal have become increasingly apparent since the White House offered to sell the planes last March. It is fueling an arms race between New Delhi and Islamabad just when a delicate peace process has begun to ease tensions in Kashmir, and it is rekindling anti-US sentiment in India just when the administration has started to move toward a ''strategic partnership" with New Delhi to strengthen India as a counterweight to China and Iran.
The Manmohan Singh government is already under fire domestically for siding with the United States against Iran in the Sept. 24 International Atomic Energy Agency vote to take the Iranian nuclear issue to the United Nations Security Council. Pakistan abstained in the IAEA vote.
The White House spin that Islamabad can pay for the F-16s out of its ''national funds" is laughable. Pakistan's foreign exchange reserves have resulted from a cornucopia of post-Sept. 11 US aid and debt relief. A US-led aid consortium has rescheduled $14.1 billion in debt, and $3.9 billion of the earthquake aid is in the form of new loans. The administration has provided Islamabad with $1.7 billion in economic and military aid grants, including $300 million just approved by Congress, plus $1.5 billion in loans and billions more in multilateral aid based largely on US contributions.
When Islamabad decides to start buying F-16s, it is likely to dip first into $750 million of unexpended US military aid grant funds to pay for some of the planes and to seek US government credits and loan guarantees for the rest.
The administration rationale for the F-16s is that Pakistan needs and deserves the planes in order to play its role as an ally against Al Qaeda and Taliban. But Pakistan makes no secret that it wants the planes for use against India. Islamabad gives only tepid support to the search for Osama Bin Laden, lets Al Qaeda and Taliban cells operate freely within Pakistan, and carefully limits its operations against Taliban forces hiding out along the Afghan border. In any case, to carry out military operations against the Taliban, Pakistan needs helicopters and communications equipment, not F-16s, and this type of aid is already being provided by the United States.
President Pervez Musharraf's importance as an ally against terrorism is sharply restricted by his unwillingness or inability to rein in Islamic extremist groups entrenched within the Pakistan armed forces and security services. Two of these groups, Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed, are aiding the destabilizing insurgent operations now going on in Kashmir and openly take credit for bombing attacks in Srinagar and New Delhi that have killed more than 70 people in recent weeks.
The damaging impact of new F-16 sales to Pakistan on US relations with India can only be understood against the backdrop of $7.2 billion in earlier US gifts of military hardware to the cold war military dictators in Islamabad who preceded Musharraf.
Pentagon assurances that US military aid to Pakistan relates only to the ''war on terrorism" revive Indian memories of earlier reassurances by Dwight Eisenhower in 1954 that the program of ''limited" weapons aid to Pakistan then unfolding was solely for use against communist aggression. By 1965, the United States had provided $3.8 billion in military hardware to Pakistan. This led General Ayub Khan to launch cross-border raids in Kashmir that triggered a broader war, in which Pakistan, predictably, relied primarily on its US planes and tanks.
India had just begun to forgive and forget when the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan prompted the United States to supply Pakistan with $3.5 billion in new weapons aid as a reward for serving as a ''front-line state." The nature of this aid package, centering on F-16s and heavy tanks, made clear that it was not intended for use on the mountainous Afghan border but rather to bolster Pakistan's balance of power in open-plains warfare with India.
Announcing the latest F-16 deal, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice declared that ''we are trying to break out of the notion that this is a hyphenated relationship, somehow, that anything good for Pakistan is bad for India, and vice-versa." On economic aid issues, that is a viable goal, but not when it comes to military aid. As C. Raja Mohan, India's leading pro-US voice, warned a couple of weeks ago, ''while de-hyphenation sounds good in theory, there is no way of ignoring the Pakistan factor in thinking about Indo-US relations."
What arouses ''growing concern" in India, Raja Mohan declared, is the current US drift to ''a long-term military relationship with Pakistan that would not take India's sensitivities into account and would overwhelm the proclaimed long-term US commitment to a strategic partnership with India."
The United States is seeking to appease India by offering comparable or superior aircraft. But history shows that US efforts to orchestrate a military balance between New Delhi and Islamabad embolden Pakistan to stir up trouble with India by giving it artificially inflated military power that it could otherwise not afford.
The size and character of American military aid to Islamabad should reflect Pakistan's transitory importance to the United States as a regional power adjacent to Afghanistan. It should be limited to hardware directly related to operations against Al Qaeda and Taliban forces. Military sales to India, a subcontinental giant eight times larger than Pakistan, should reflect the much broader US stake in an enduring strategic partnership with a rising economic and military power increasingly important to the United States in the global geopolitical balance.
Selig S. Harrison, author of four books on South Asia, is director of the Asia Program at the Center for International Policy in Washington.