The cost of rewarding Pakistan

April 01, 2005

IF PAKISTAN were playing Monopoly, it would seem to have its very own stack of "Get out of jail free" cards - all handed out by Washington.

Given to forestall the rise of radical Islam in Pakistan, the free passes directly conflict with the Bush administration's fight against nuclear proliferation and the president's rhetoric on fostering democracy around the globe. They're a very risky outcome of U.S. realpolitik.

Fifteen years ago, the United States blocked the sale of F-16 fighter jets to Islamabad because it had developed nuclear weapons. Last week - in the latest of Washington's post-9/11 moves to ensure at least limited loyalty from Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf - the United States said it would allow the sale of these jets. To placate Pakistan's historic rival, the Bush administration then offered India a much fuller strategic relationship and even more-advanced jets.

Almost incredibly, this follows revelations that put the father of the Islamic bomb, Pakistani hero A. Q. Khan, at the center of an international network that had been spreading nuclear technology and hardware to Iran, Libya and North Korea for years. Mr. Khan already has been pardoned by General Musharraf, who continues to display the true nature of his friendship with Washington by not allowing U.S. investigators to interview the scientist.

The F-16 sale sends a terrible message about the very high U.S. tolerance of even nuclear misdeeds by its chosen strongmen. (You'd think that at the very least General Musharraf would let the Bush administration's proliferation fighters learn what Mr. Khan knows.)

Of course, it's far better that the front lines of the U.S. war on terror are - for now - on Pakistan's western front, not its border with India. But will F-16s do anything to prevent jihadists from coming to power there? If this sale strengthens General Musharraf's relatively moderate military rule - for the time being, useful in fighting the growth of radical Islam in Pakistan - it does nothing to address the high poverty and low education rates fueling that rise.

The best thing that could come of selling these weapons is that it might raise U.S. influence in South Asia relative to China. But it's still a very dangerous move. These sales reinvigorate an arms race along one of the world's most volatile borders at a time of improving relations. Both sides already can drop nuclear bombs on each other, but these jets are for war - not helping Islamabad locate Osama bin Laden's bunker.

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