Behind the U.S.-Pakistan Missile Spat: The Indian Threat

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A Harpoon missile is fired from a U.S. destroyer

The spat between Washington and Islamabad over allegations that Pakistan illegally modified U.S.-supplied missiles to improve its ability to target India reveals a deeper schism in the relationship: Pakistan's military establishment remains unmoved by Washington's best efforts to persuade it that the Taliban, rather than India, is the primary threat facing Pakistan — and that's bad news for the U.S. effort in neighboring Afghanistan.

Pakistan's Foreign Ministry on Aug. 31 "categorically rejected" charges made by unnamed Obama Administration and Congressional officials quoted in the New York Times the day before that new missiles enabling Pakistan's navy to strike targets on shore were modified from stock supplied by the U.S. during the 1980s. Officials in Islamabad insist that Pakistan produced the new missiles itself.

The quarrel centers on Harpoon antiship missiles sold to Pakistan during the 1980s by the Reagan Administration as part of a broader strategy to counter Soviet influence in the region. Pakistan is alleged to have tinkered with the missiles to enable them to be used against targets on land, and to have conducted a discreet test of the new capability in April. If the allegations are true, Pakistan could be in violation of U.S. law — a point that was reportedly raised by Obama Administration officials with Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani in June.

Some Pakistani experts believe the official claims. "It's nothing extraordinary for Pakistan," says Talat Masood, a retired lieutenant general who headed Pakistan's largest ordnance factory. "Pakistan has a very comprehensive missile program and is fully capable of producing a wide range of missiles: surface-to-surface, ballistic, anti-air, anti-tanks, etc."

Other former officials and analysts are less convinced. "It's quite possible that they may have made some modifications," says a former military official, speaking on condition that his name be withheld. "Because of the sanctions that were imposed in Pakistan in late 1990 [by the U.S. in response to Pakistan's nuclear-weapons program], the missiles stopped going to the U.S. for routine maintenance. They must have opened it up and probably extended its range."

"This is what happens in countries that are dependent on foreign technology," says Ayesha Siddiqa, a military expert and author of Pakistan's Arms Procurement and Military Buildup, 1979-99. Much of Pakistan's military modernization has come about from U.S. arms sales in the 1950s and '80s. "In Pakistan, we have not really gone beyond license production and reverse engineering." Siddiqa adds that this is not the first time that Pakistan has been accused of reverse engineering or modification. A U.S. Tomahawk cruise missile that had strayed into Pakistani territory during strikes on al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan in August 1998 and was recovered intact by Pakistan is widely believed to have provided the basis for its Babur cruise missile.

Pakistan spends "a very small amount of defense production on research and development," says Siddiqa. The Ghauri missile — Pakistan's much-vaunted medium-range ballistic missile, capable of traveling up to 1,500 km and carrying a payload of 700 kg — is simply a renamed Nodong-1 missile imported from North Korea. Drawing on the technology of the North Korean imports, Pakistan is continuing to develop its own longer-range variants — all pointed at India.

The Obama Administration has been keen to revive the peace process between Islamabad and New Delhi after it was derailed by last November's Mumbai massacre, believing that taking the relationship between the two countries off a war footing could be a key factor in helping stabilize Afghanistan. The Pakistan military's unshaken focus on its eastern border stems in large part from advances by its rival, including the recent testing of a nuclear submarine. The fear, says retired general Masood, is that "every major induction [in India's military arsenal], whether it is from abroad or indigenous, can be used against Pakistan more than any other." That, of course, may be based on an exaggerated sense of Pakistan's importance in India's strategic thinking: India is establishing itself as a regional power to rival China, which guides the development of its military capability.

Pakistan remains suspicious of Indian ambitions in the region, and angry at unresolved disputes, first and foremost over Kashmir. The refusal of Obama's envoy, Richard Holbrooke, to even discuss the issue — which he says falls outside his purview — has not helped the new Administration win Pakistan's trust. Many in Islamabad accuse President Obama of reneging on a campaign promise to seek a resolution on the Kashmir question. Pakistan also fears rising Indian influence in Afghanistan, fearing that the prime challenger to President Hamid Karzai, Abdullah Abdullah, is even more hostile to Pakistan than the incumbent has been perceived to be. To make matters worse, there is also a slowly bubbling water war between India and Pakistan.

Against this backdrop, Pakistan's unpopular civilian government finds itself in a squeeze. President Asif Ali Zardari has prided himself on improving relations with Washington and across the region, but like all civilian leaders of Pakistan before him, he is faced with the dilemma of responding to Washington's concerns at the same time as staying on side with an all-powerful military hard-wired for war with India. As ever, in Pakistan, it's the military brass that Washington must convince that Islamic extremism rather than India is their primary challenge, and thus far the generals appear to remain unpersuaded.