The Obama administration’s decision this month to sell almost $1 billion in U.S.-made attack helicopters, missiles and other equipment to Pakistan will fuel conflict in South Asia without fulfilling the objective of helping the country fight Islamist extremists. Pakistan’s failure to tackle its jihadist challenge is not the result of a lack of arms but reflects an absence of will. Unless Pakistan changes its worldview, American weapons will end up being used to fight or menace India and perceived domestic enemies instead of being deployed against jihadists.
Competition with India remains the overriding consideration in Pakistan’s foreign and domestic policies. By aiding Pakistan over the years—some $40 billion since 1950, according to the Congressional Research Service—the U.S. has fed Pakistan’s delusion of being India’s regional military equal. Seeking security against a much larger neighbor is a rational objective but seeking parity with it on a constant basis is not.
Instead of selling more military equipment to Pakistan, U.S. officials should convince Pakistan that its ambitions of rivaling India are akin to Belgium trying to rival France or Germany. India’s population is six times as large as Pakistan’s while India’s economy is 10 times bigger, and India’s $2 trillion economy has managed consistent growth whereas Pakistan’s $245 billion economy has grown sporadically and is undermined by jihadist terrorism and domestic political chaos. Pakistan also continues to depend on Islamist ideology—through its school curricula, propaganda and Islamic legislation—to maintain internal nationalist cohesion, which inevitably encourages extremism and religious intolerance.
Clearly, with the latest military package, the Obama administration expects to continue the same policies adopted by several of its predecessors—and somehow get different results. It’s a mystery why the president suddenly trusts Pakistan’s military—after mistrusting it at the time of the Navy SEAL operation in May 2011 that found and killed Osama bin Laden living safely until then in the Pakistani garrison town of Abbottabad.
One explanation is that selling helicopters and missiles is easier than thinking of alternative strategies to compel an errant ally to change its behavior. This is a pattern in U.S.-Pakistan relations going back to the 1950s. Between 1950 and 1969, the U.S. gave $4.5 billion in aid to Pakistan partly in the hope of using Pakistani troops in anticommunist wars, according to declassified U.S. government documents. Pakistan did not contribute a single soldier for the wars in Korea or Vietnam but went to war with India over the disputed border state of Kashmir instead in 1965.
During the 1980s, Pakistan served as the staging ground for the jihad against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and received another $4.5 billion in aid, as reported by the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations to Congress. Pakistan diverted U.S. assistance again toward its obsessive rivalry with India, and trained insurgents to fight in the Indian part of Kashmir as well as in India’s Punjab state. It also violated promises to the U.S. and its own public statements not to acquire nuclear weapons, which it first tested openly in 1998—arguing that it could not afford to remain nonnuclear while India’s nuclear program surged ahead.
Since the 1990s, Pakistan has supported various jihadist groups, including the Afghan Taliban. After 9/11, the country’s military dictator, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, promised to end support for the Islamic radicals. Based on that promise, Pakistan received $15.1 billion in civil and military aid from the U.S. until 2009. In February, Gen. Musharraf admitted in an interview with the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper that he continued to support the Afghan Taliban even after 9/11 because of concerns over close relations between Afghanistan and India. Thus the U.S. was effectively arming a country that was, in turn, arming insurgents fighting and killing American troops in Afghanistan.
After the Dec. 16, 2014, attack on a Peshawar school, where the Taliban massacred 160 people, including many schoolchildren, Pakistan claimed it had changed its policy toward terrorist groups and would no longer distinguish between “good” and “bad” Taliban. The Pakistani military has since sped up military action against terrorist groups responsible for mayhem inside Pakistan. But the destruction, demobilization, disarmament or dismantling of Afghan Taliban and other radical groups is clearly not on the Pakistani state’s agenda. There has been no move against Kashmir-oriented jihadist groups.
Given Pakistan’s history, it is likely that the 15 AH-1Z Viper helicopters and 1,000 Hellfire missiles—as well as communications and training equipment being offered to it—will be used against secular insurgents in southwest Baluchistan province, bordering Iran, and along the disputed border in Kashmir rather than against the jihadists in the northwest bordering Afghanistan.
If the Obama administration believes Pakistan’s military has really changed its priorities, it should consider leasing helicopters to Pakistan and verify where they are deployed before going through with outright sales.
With nuclear weapons, Pakistan no longer has any reason to feel insecure about being overrun by a larger Indian conventional force. For the U.S. to continue supplying a Pakistani military that is much larger than the country can afford will only invigorate Pakistani militancy and militarism at the expense of its 200 million people, one-third of whom continue to live at less than a dollar a day per household.