TOPICS : Is F-16 sale to Pakistan a wise decision?

William B Milam and Sarmila Bose

The negative chorus that has greeted the American decision to sell F-16s to Pakistan is off-key. From the criticism, it is clear that the importance of Pakistan to the long-term interests

of the US, the West, and India, is still poorly understood. Most observers assume that the decision was motivated by the US need for Pakistani cooperation in the war on terror. Critics emphasise that Pakistan remains a military government with a democratic facade, and that it hasn’t been fully cooperative on other issues. But America’s longer-term interests in the region argue strongly for supporting the decision. Those interests start with Pakistan’s geo-strategic and political importance.

As a stable Islamic democracy of 150 million people, Pakistan would be a political model in the Muslim world. However, a real democracy requires evolution toward a more “modern” society and the “enlightened moderation” that President Musharraf continues to advocate. On this, the US help is crucial also on social development and on the political front. A democratic, moderate, and modern Pakistan would be a better neighbour for India, one able to transform the age-old hostile relationship into something mutually constructive.

Critics may well ask, “Can’t we bring this about without selling F-16s to Pakistan?” The answer probably is no, given the history of the US-Pakistani relationship, and the doubts that many Pakistanis harbour about American willingness and ability to sustain a relationship. This is precisely why the sale of the F-16s is the sort of measure that serves US interests. First, it helps mitigate the insult caused by the US’s shoddy behaviour over the F-16s in the 1990s: Taking money and not delivering the goods is bad business and even worse foreign policy. The US now accepts both India and Pakistan as de facto nuclear states.

Second, the sale of the F-16s enhances US ability to influence Musharraf and his moderate line of governance in the longer term. It proves to the Pakistani military and public that Pakistan’s cooperation with the US brings benefits, and that the US understands its security concerns. This in turn promotes trust, undermines anti-Americanism, and signals that the US has learned from the mistake of abandoning Pakistan in 1990 and is now interested in building a long-term relationship.

Third, the longer-term view signalled by the F-16 sale allows the US to focus on other fundamental issues: economic reforms to encourage the greater regional trade and investment necessary for sustainable economic development; social progress through the spread of education, especially for women; and repeal of hudood laws and other obstructions to modernity. The sale of F-16s in no way detracts from the economic assistance to which the US should remain committed, especially through targeted education programmes, which transform society. Nor do planes that were meant to be delivered 15 years ago constitute a destabilising factor. Rather, they address Pakistan’s security concerns, rebuild trust, and signal America’s long-term commitment — correctly designing policy on the basis of crucial US interests and the common interests that form the bedrock of any successful alliance. — The Christian Science Monitor