Anti-terror ally or not, Pakistan doesn't deserve our F-16s


WASHINGTON -- As tensions flare in the Middle East and the United States rushes weapons to both Israel and Saudi Arabia, a significant arms sale to another potential hot spot is being overshadowed. The United States is close to concluding a $5 billion sale of advanced U.S. F-16 fighter jets to Pakistan, a transfer that, given the current situation in Pakistan and the entire subregion, is ill-advised and particularly troublesome.

Pakistan has been trying to get F-16s from the United States for years. In 1989, President George H.W. Bush halted a sale of more than 80 F-16s when intelligence revealed that Pakistan was developing nuclear weapons. In the late 1990s, Pakistan was formally designated as ineligible to receive U.S. weapons because of its continued nuclear testing and the military coup that brought Gen. Pervez Musharraf to power.

But none of the conditions that prevented the United States from selling Pakistan the F-16s in the past have changed. Pakistan has not renounced its nuclear program; it supplied nuclear technology to Iran, North Korea, and Libya through the clandestine networks of its leading scientist, A.Q. Khan; and recent evidence reveals that Pakistan is building a new nuclear reactor that could increase its nuclear stockpile even more.

Moreover, Mr. Musharraf is still in power and has not been elected democratically. Still, the United States lifted all sanctions against Pakistan immediately after Sept. 11. Pakistan was even promoted to "major non-NATO ally" status in March 2004, and President Bush has deemed the fighter jet sale a "presidential priority."

Now, Pakistan is slated to receive at least 18 F-16 fighter jets (with an option to purchase up to 18 more), upgrades for 26 of Pakistan's used aircraft, an array of sophisticated weaponry for the jets, and full technical support and maintenance for the entire fleet of F-16s, as a reward for Pakistani support of the U.S. war on terrorism. The current sale was scheduled to take place in late 2005 but was postponed by Mr. Musharraf in the wake of the devastating earthquake that struck Kashmir.

After the earthquake, Mr. Musharraf scaled back his request from 77 fighter jets to 36, but critics of the sale still point out the irresponsibility of spending billions on advanced weaponry when much of Pakistan's nondefense-related infrastructure is in shambles. The total cost for the deal is still more than Pakistan's entire defense budget for 2005.

Human rights considerations make this sale worrisome. Although the F-16s are intended to help Pakistan root out the Taliban in the border regions near Afghanistan, reports allege that fighter jets have been used in indiscriminate bombing campaigns in Baluchistan province that have killed Pakistani civilians. Transferring arms to human rights abusers is in strict violation of long-standing U.S. arms export policy, yet the deal remains on the table.

The sale has also caused a dispute between Congress and the White House. At a congressional hearing on the sale, lawmakers admonished the State Department's eschewal of the traditional informal consultation prior to formal notification of the sale. Congress had concerns about the sale, namely the lack of an adequate plan for safeguarding sophisticated technologies included in the F-16, and was eager to remedy those concerns out of the public view. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has since announced that no aircraft will be delivered until Pakistan signs written security guarantees.

Demonstrating its opposition to how the Bush administration handled the sale, the House introduced a resolution of disapproval to block the sale, but the Senate did not introduce a complementary resolution, which would have been necessary for Congress to stop the contract, although Congress could still pass laws blocking the sale up until the F-16s are delivered. Thus, despite Pakistan's documented nuclear proliferation, suffering economy, and poor human rights record, the F-16 sale will likely continue as planned.

The United States should certainly support its military allies and promote military interoperability, in the name of international security. However, rushing advanced technologies to any who pledge to assist in the war on terror without considering all of the potential repercussions is imprudent. Pakistan has done without a shipment of F-16s for nearly 20 years. It can wait until the transfer furthers U.S. interests and policies instead of jeopardizing them.

Rachel Stohl is senior analyst and Rhea Myerscough is research assistant at the Center for Defense Information at the World Security Institute in Washington. E-mail or

Columnist Steve Chapman is on vacation.

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