The United States sells death, destruction, and terror as a fundamental instrument of its foreign policy. It sees arms sales as a way of making and keeping strategic friends and tying countries more directly to U.S. military planning and operations. At its simplest, as Lt. Gen. Jeffrey B. Kohler, director of the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, told The New York Times in 2006, the United States likes arms deals because “it gives us access and influence and builds friendships.” South Asia has been an important arena for this effort, and it teaches some lessons the United States should not ignore.

A recent Congressional Research Service report on international arms sales records that last year the United States delivered nearly $8 billion worth of weapons to Third World countries. This was about 40% of all such arms transfers. The United States signed agreements to sell over $10 billion worth of weapons, one-third of all arms deals with Third World countries.

It is easy to put this in perspective: $10 billon a year is the estimated cost of meeting the UN Millennium Development Goal for water and sanitation, which would reduce by half the proportion of people in the world without proper access to drinking water and basic sanitation by 2015. Today, about 1.1 billion people do not have access to a minimal amount of clean water and about 2.6 billion people do not have access to basic sanitation.

The scale of recent U.S. arms sales should not be news. The United States sold over $61 billion worth of weapons to Third World countries from 1999-2006, making it by far the leading international supplier. Russia, the second largest arms dealer, managed to sell less than half as much.

Arms vs. Influence in Pakistan

The largest third world buyer of weapons in 2006 was Pakistan. It purchased just over $5 billion in arms deals. Almost $3 billion of the purchases by Pakistan were new U.S.-made F-16s fighter jets, up-grades to the F-16s Pakistan bought in the 1980s, and bombs and missiles to arm these planes. A White House Press spokesman explained that the sale of the jet fighters “demonstrates our commitment to a long-term relationship with Pakistan.”

The use of arms sales to show commitment to Pakistan has gone on for over 50 years. The United States used military aid to recruit and arm Pakistan as an ally in the Cold War. A great fear, as a 1953 State Department memorandum pointed out, was “a noticeable increase in the activities of the mullahs in Pakistan. There was reason to believe that in face of growing doubts as to whether Pakistan had any real friends, more and more Pakistanis were turning to the mullahs for guidance. Were this trend to continue the present government of enlightened and Western-oriented leaders might well be threatened, and members of a successive government would probably be far less cooperative with the west than the present incumbents.” This memo could have been written today.

The United States has failed to learn that paying Pakistan’s military bills demonstrates commitment and friendship only to Pakistan’s army. It does nothing for Pakistan’s people. The US supported General Ayub Khan, Pakistan’s first military leader, for a decade (1958-1969), at great cost. He was brought down by a tide of public protest.

The United States also supported General Zia (who ruled from 1977 to 1988), once he agreed to help in the U.S. war against the Soviet Union occupation in Afghanistan. Washington gave General Zia a $3.2 billion aid package in 1982 and promised another $4 billion in 1988. This generosity bought precious little. Pakistan’s government took the money and used it buy weapons from the United States, built nuclear weapons, and promoted radical Islamists at home and in Afghanistan. The consequences are all around us today.

Since September 11, 2001, the United States has given over $10 billion to Pakistan to buy or reward General Musharraf’s support for its newest war, the “war on terror.” Pakistan has spent over $1.5 billion of this amount on buying new weapons. To understand the scale of this aid, consider Pakistan’s total military budget in 2006, estimated at about $4.5 billion. The United States is now giving Pakistan aid to pay for the new deal for F-16s, bombs, and missiles. It is likely to win few friends.

There is little doubt today about how unpopular the United States is in Pakistan. A Pew Poll released in September 2006 found that in Pakistan, the United States is viewed less favorably even than India (with which Pakistan has fought four wars). Just over 25% were favorable toward the United States, compared to one-third who felt that way toward India.

Attitudes toward the United States have worsened. A 2007 poll found that only 15% of Pakistanis had a favorable attitude towards the United States. An August 2007 poll found that General Musharraf was less popular even than Osama bin Laden; Musharraf had the support of 38% of Pakistanis, Bin Laden of 46%, and President Bush found favor with only 9%. It is hard to imagine a more damning indictment of a policy that sought to make friends and build support.

This hostility toward the United States will only get worse as it is seen to support General Musharraf’s efforts to remain president of Pakistan.

Strategic Relationship with India

India, Pakistan’s neighbor, historic rival, and often bitter enemy, is the second largest buyer of weapons in the Third World. It signed up for $3.5 billion worth of weapons in 2006. It is now responsible for about 12% all arms purchases in the third world. India has traditionally bought Russian weapons, but is now interested in what others, especially the United States, has to offer.

India may spend some $40 billion on weapons purchases over the next five years. High on the list is a contract for 126 jet fighters, with a possible price tag of over $10 billion. A State Department official announced the government will try to help win the order for a U.S. company. U.S. arms manufacturers are already lining up. Richard G. Kirkland, Lockheed Martin’s president for South Asia, has claimed that “India is our top market” when it come to “potential for growth.” The President of Raytheon Asia, Walter F. Doran, claims India may be “one of our largest, if not our largest, growth partner over the next decade or so.”

There is good reason for U.S. confidence. In 2005, the defense secretaries of the United States and India signed the “New Framework for the U.S-India Defense Relationship.” The Framework “charts a course for the U.S.-India defense relationship for the next ten years” and “will support, and will be an element of, the broader U.S.-India strategic partnership.” It includes a commitment to “expand two-way defense trade.” These arms deals, the Framework statement claims, should be seen “not solely as ends in and of themselves, but as a means to strengthen our countries’ security, reinforce our strategic partnership, achieve greater interaction between our armed forces, and build greater understanding between our defense establishments.”

More Arms, Less Influence

As with Pakistan, these arms sales may not buy the United States the influence it seeks in India. The U.S.-India nuclear deal offers an example of how things may play out. In 2005, the United States and India agreed on a deal to exempt India from the 30-year- old U.S. laws that prevent states from using commercial imports of nuclear technology and fuel to aid their nuclear weapons ambitions. In 2006, Congress approved and President Bush signed legislation lifting the curbs on nuclear trade with India. The two countries have been negotiating a nuclear cooperation agreement over the past year.

The clearest exposition of what the United States wants in exchange came in testimony to Congress in support of the U.S.-India nuclear deal by Ashton Carter, who served as assistant secretary of defense in the Clinton administration, and in a 2006 article “America’s New Strategic Partner?” in the journal Foreign Affairs. He argued that Washington needed India’s help against Iranian nukes, in future conflicts with Pakistan, and as a counterweight to China. He noted there were “more direct benefits”, which include “the intensification of military-to-military contacts” and “the cooperation of India in disaster-relief efforts, humanitarian interventions, peacekeeping missions, and post-conflict reconstruction efforts,” and “operations not mandated by or commanded by the United Nations, operations in which India has historically refused to participate.”

And finally, Carter offered the real kicker, “U.S. military forces may also seek access to strategic locations through Indian territory and perhaps basing rights there. Ultimately, India could even provide U.S. forces with ‘over-the-horizon’ bases for contingencies in the Middle East.”

Carter recognized that there are other interests too, which others might put higher on the list. He acknowledged that “on the economic front, as India expands its civilian nuclear capacity and modernizes its military, the United States stands to gain preferential treatment for U.S. industries.”

The process of putting pressure on India to deliver has already begun. In May 2007, key members of the U.S. Congress wrote a letter to the Indian prime minister warning that they were “deeply concerned” by India’s relationship with Iran, and that if India did not address this then there was “the potential to seriously harm prospects for the establishment of the global partnership between the United States and India.” In short, India was being told to choose: Iran or the United States and the nuclear deal.

However, the past few weeks have seen a growing crisis in India over the nuclear deal and how close India should get to the United States. India’s Communist Parties, which are part of the Congress Party-led coalition government, have demanded a halt to the U.S.-India nuclear deal to give the country time to work out its implications for Indian foreign policy. Their fear is that the deal will give the U.S. influence over Indian decision-making. They have threatened to bring down India’s government.

India’s progressive social movements have also opposed the nuclear deal. They worry that “directly or indirectly, the United States will also enter the Indian sub-continent, to manage intra-regional, inter-country relations.” They see it as “not just anti-democratic but against peace, and against environmentally sustainable energy generation and self-reliant economic development.” These basic concerns about democracy, peace, sustainability, and independence, are what will put India at odds with U.S. policy, no matter how many weapons it offers to sell.

Zia Mian is a physicist with the Program on Science and Global Security at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University and a columnist for Foreign Policy In Focus (online at

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