American Arms -- Into Whose Hands?

Since Sept. 11, the US has stepped up military assistance to allies old and new. But might America's own weapons someday be turned against it?

| Thu Feb. 21, 2002 4:00 AM EST

Eager to reward and reinforce America's new allies in the war on terrorism, the Bush administration has moved to boost military assistance to several countries in Central to Southeast Asia. These increased weapons sales offer a short-term boost for American policy makers and defense contractors. But using arms transfers and military assistance to win friends and intimidate adversaries is undermining US interests by spreading instability and fueling conflict.

Perhaps most disturbing, however, is that possibility that some of the weapons that Washington is shipping abroad may ultimately wind up in the hands of America's enemies.

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In the days after the September terror attacks, President Bush won Congress' approval to lift restrictions on military aid to countries he deems deserving. The first -- and most troubling -- beneficiaries of this arrangement were Pakistan and India.

A general embargo on arms sales to Pakistan has been partially lifted, and as a result the country has already received millions of dollars in aid to beef up internal security and border patrols, as well as six Apache attack helicopters. During his visit to Washington last week, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf was promised a much larger aid package in the coming months, with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld pointedly saying that "we look forward to strengthening the military-to-military ties" between Washington and Islamabad.

Among other things, Musharraf is asking for 28 F-16 fighter jets that the country originally purchased in the 1980s, but which the US never delivered because of concerns about Pakistan's nuclear weapons program. For his part, Musharraf has offered the US key support in its campaign in Afghanistan. Pakistan has provided intelligence on Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network and has allowed US forces to operate from its territory.

That assistance has outraged Pakistan's Islamic fundamentalist groups and political parties, not to mention pro-Taliban elements in its powerful national intelligence agency. Though Musharraf seems to be firmly in control for now, there is a real possibility that he could be challenged and possibly toppled by Islamic opponents.

Musharraf himself, of course, is only in power as the result of a military coup, and Congress has long prohibited the export of arms and military assistance to countries whose elected head of government is overthrown. For Musharraf, Washington's new ally in the explosive region, an exception has been made. But should the Pakistani pattern repeat itself with Musharraf being ousted, the US military hardware being sent to Islamabad today could end up in the hands of a Pakistani leader far less sympathetic to America's interests.

To maintain the "military balance" on the subcontinent, the US is also stepping up weapons sales to India, which has expressed deep concerns at the arming of its arch-rival Pakistan.

On India's wish list are combat aircraft, advanced light helicopters, communication and surveillance platforms, spare parts and radar. In recent months, India and Pakistan's ongoing dispute over the territory of Kashmir has heated up dangerously. The fact that both countries have nuclear weapons raises the stakes tremendously. Adding more American weapons into the mix seems unlikely to calm matters, but that appears to be Washington's intent.

"We are at the beginning of a very important arms sales relationship," Robert Blackwell, US ambassador to India, recently told Agence France-Presse.

A similar relationship appears to now be at least a possibility for another nation still relegated to the US arms-sales blacklist: Indonesia. Washington severed military ties with the island nation in September, 1999 because of widespread human rights abuses following the independence vote in the breakaway province of East Timor. Now, however, both Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Deputy Secretary Paul Wolfowitz are reportedly clamoring for renewed military ties.

While it remains unlikely that Indonesia will be sold US weapons anytime soon, ties with the country's military leaders are no longer out-of-bounds. Congress recently passed a bill allowing Jakarta to receive $21 million in US aid as part of a regional counterterrorism training program.

The Philippines is not on any blacklist, and Congress had been planning on increasing military aid to Manila before Sept. 11. After the terror attacks, however, Washington kicked those efforts into overdrive.

In exchange for Philippine President Gloria Arroyo's decision allowing US aircraft and ships to refuel on Philippine military bases, the Bush administration has added to its aid package, promising to deliver $92.3 million worth of helicopters, M-16 rifles and other military equipment. To top it off, the US has sent some 700 US special forces troops to help Philippine soldiers fighting Islamic insurgents linked to al Qaeda.

As in Pakistan, however, Washington's largesse has touched local nerves. The presence of US troops is angering Philippine nationalists, who campaigned to eject the US military in 1991, and threatens to enrage Muslim rebel groups already fighting the government. Abu Sayyaf, the most brutal of these groups, is widely believed to have close ties to al Qaeda.

Yemen and Uzbekistan, two countries that in the past received little or no US military aid because of their records of corruption and human rights abuses, are now in line to get much more. Again, the key to the change in policy can be tied to Washington's eagerness to reward new allies in its war on terror.

Uzbekistan, the former Soviet state that shares a border with Afghanistan, gave US forces access to its intelligence and its territory. Since Sept. 11, Uzbekistan has received "nonlethal" military equipment -- including transport vehicles and night-vision goggles -- as well as a substantial increase in aid for military training, according to a Pentagon spokesperson. President Bush has requested $40.5 million in economic and law enforcement assistance for Uzbekistan this year, up from $5.9 million in fiscal 2001.

Late last year, government troops in Yemen -- trained and armed by the US -- attacked a tribal group believed to be shielding al Qaeda fighters. Now there is talk of a $400 million aid package for Yemen that would reportedly include US special forces training.

In the US, while the Bush administration offers up high-tech weaponry in exchange for assistance and support, there has been little debate about the risks involved in equipping these new partners.

Perhaps most pressing is the question of where those weapons may wind up ten or twenty years from now. Recently, US officials acknowledged that Iran bought US-made Stinger anti-aircraft missiles in Afghanistan in 1994. The missiles, apparently left over from the days when Washington armed the anti-Soviet mujahadeen, were sent by Iran to a Lebanon-based terrorist group.