KARACHI, Pakistan—The slogan for this year’s version of Pakistan’s biggest arms show, IDEAS 2004, is “Arms for Peace.” But despite all the heavy weapons on display, the host city, Karachi, seems markedly insecure. Exhibitors and attendees drive from the Sheraton to the expo center in armed convoys. Police with machine guns are stationed every 50 yards along the 30-minute drive. Snipers peek from the rooftops surrounding the expo center. Delegates are advised not to leave the hotel, which is where 11 French submarine engineers were killed two years ago on their way to work on subs that France and Pakistan are assembling here. Karachi is also where Daniel Pearl was kidnapped.
As delegations from a veritable Who’s Who of pariah states—North Korea, Myanmar, Iran, Zimbabwe, Sudan—make the rounds, a Pakistani company shows off its new cluster bombs (which, the company press release notes, “can be used against soft targets”). A Bangladeshi delegation looks approvingly at a display of Pakistani tanks.
Pakistan’s missiles, including the nuclear-capable Shaheen II, are displayed outside, behind a sign reading “Technological Demonstration—Not for Sale.” It seems to be an oblique reference to the most notorious past IDEAS exhibitor—A.Q. Khan, the father of Pakistan’s nuclear program and now the apparent mastermind of a global nuclear smuggling network. Four years ago, his company, Khan Research Laboratories, was at IDEAS handing out glossy brochures advertising specialized equipment for making a nuclear bomb.
But the big news at the show is the U.S. presence. This is the first time that American companies have exhibited at IDEAS, and they have turned out in force. Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, United Defense, and several smaller companies are here. The United States imposed weapons sanctions in the 1990s after it found out about Pakistan’s secret nuclear bomb program. But then came Sept. 11 and the war in Afghanistan. Pakistan became our new best friend, and the sanctions were lifted. And although Pakistan’s military is still overwhelmingly oriented toward India—hardly a major front in the “war on terror”—Washington has opened up its pocketbooks again. Over the next five years, Pakistan will get at least $1.5 billion in defense aid from the United States.
An announcement made at IDEAS 2004 suggests where some of that money is going to be spent: Pakistani officials revealed that the United States is ready to reverse its longtime opposition to selling new F-16 fighter jets to Islamabad. The chief of the Pakistan Air Force told me Washington wants to provide the F-16s, in part, to help Pakistan fight Islamist extremists in the tribal areas in the northwestern part of the country.
Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has deftly played the United States since Sept. 11, and Washington has let him get away with it. Shortly before IDEAS 2004 opened, he announced that he will not step down as chief of the army, as he had promised. The United States barely let out a peep. The operations against the insurgents in the northwest are centered in Waziristan, not around Quetta or Peshawar, where intelligence officials and analysts believe most Taliban and al-Qaida operatives are based. One analyst told me the Pakistanis are attacking Waziristan because it’s an easy target, and because tribal forces humiliated Pakistani army troops there earlier this year, and now the military establishment wants revenge. Yet U.S. officials praise the operations as an important battle in the “war on terror.”
Even if Pakistan were serious about fighting the Taliban, it could certainly find a better way to spend the hundreds of millions of dollars the F-16s will cost. But the Pakistanis gave a clue as to what they really want with the planes: They are requesting that the F-16s be armed with top-of-the-line air-to-air missiles that would be of little use against targets like the Islamists it’s fighting on the ground. Other equipment Pakistan is getting from the United States—navy surveillance planes, for example—is similarly useless against a guerrilla insurgency. They would, of course, be useful in a war against India.
The majority of questions Pakistani journalists asked in the show’s press conferences were centered around one theme: “Can this help us beat India?” The Indian air force is formidable—earlier this year they beat U.S. pilots in a war game. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s air force has stagnated as a result of U.S. sanctions, about which the Pakistanis are still resentful The most notorious episode of the sanctions period was when the United States refused to allow the importation of 70 F-16s that Pakistan bought in the 1980s—after Islamabad had paid for them in advance. It took a decade just to get the money refunded. This lends the F-16 deal the look of a thank-you gift rather than a serious weapon in the “war on terror.”