The State Department Just Okayed $1 Billion in Helicopters and Missiles to Pakistan

Despite an alarming history of human rights abuses, the U.S. is poised to send a huge amount of firepower to Pakistan's military

An US-made super cobra attack helicopter launching a sidewinder missile in 2007. Credit: Sam Yeh/AFP/Getty

As social media erupted earlier this week with news that Hillary Clinton was spotted at a Chipotle, the department she used to head quietly approved a massive weapons sale to a U.S. ally whose military has a long record of human rights abuses. On April 6th, the State Department green-lit a nearly $1 billion arms sale to the government of Pakistan. The proposed deal includes 15 Viper attack helicopters, 1,000 Hellfire missiles and all the technology and training needed to operate them.

But some observers worry that the Pakistani military's dismal humanitarian record – including in ongoing operations – should raise red flags for the U.S. In June 2014, Pakistan launched a massive operation purportedly to clear militant groups from North Waziristan, an impoverished tribal region where the central government has little control and offers few services. Although Pakistan has prohibited journalists from entering combat areas, many observers say the military has done nothing to limit civilian casualties.

"Pakistan has not paid any attention to that from Day One when the operation was launched," says Taha Siddiqui, a journalist based in Pakistan. "I spoke to many people who were stuck there [in North Waziristan] and then had to face indiscriminate aerial bombing from the military."

Nizam Khan Dawar, who was born in North Waziristan and is the chairman of the Tribal Development Network, echoed those accusations in an email to me last October. The operation "damaged our homes, shops, schools and hospitals," and he said that the Pakistani military acts indiscriminately compared with what he described as the relative precision of American drones: "U.S. hit the exact target, but Pakistani Jet hit the whole house or village instead of the target."

If the sale goes through, it will be one of the largest between the U.S. and Pakistan in the last decade, and a major win for the U.S. contractors who will supply the weapons – Textron's Bell Helicopter, General Electric, Boeing and Lockheed Martin. Some reports have suggested that Russia and China are jockeying to sell Pakistan helicopters as well.

The proposed sale – which still has to be approved by Congress – comes at a time of relatively open levels of cooperation between the U.S. and Pakistan, which have maintained a close but often contentious relationship since 9/11. Intelligence services in both countries have regularly worked together behind the scenes in the U.S.-led war on terror, and Pakistan has tacitly allowed the U.S. to carry out a massive drone program in its tribal areas – though the government officially condemns virtually every U.S. strike.

The export of sophisticated attack helicopters and missiles could signal an even greater level of cooperation between the two countries, not least of all because the weapons are explicitly intended to further the mission that has allegedly led to so many civilian casualties. "Pakistan will enhance its ability to conduct operations in North Waziristan Agency (NWA), the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), and other remote and mountainous areas in all-weather, day-and-night environments," according to the announcement.

The 10-month long North Waziristan operation has displaced over one million people, many of whom fled either to border towns in Pakistan or across the border into Afghanistan. Only now are people beginning to return to the area. Previous large-scale operations in Pakistan's tribal areas have failed to dislodge militant groups, many of which simply moved to different areas to escape the onslaught, raising questions of how likely it is that the latest operation will achieve lasting success.

"There's no question there are real problems in Pakistan, and there are real threats," says Mustafa Qadri, a senior researcher at Amnesty International. "But a military with that kind of pattern of behavior – it's obviously a concern from a justice perspective, but also practically speaking, we all know that when you have insurgency and terrorism, a key part of that is to not create fear and alienation among the population in the region you target."

Qadri adds that Pakistan needs a counter-insurgency strategy that goes beyond military solutions.

"Pakistan's problem with its insurgency has not been fundamentally a lack of adequate hardware," he says, "but much more about the state's unwillingness or inability to address extremism internally. In some respects, there's active support for some extremist groups. That's why respect for international law is so important. Beyond that, these are issues that are social, cultural and political in nature that need to have a broader strategy."

Asked if the U.S. has received any assurances that these weapons would be used in compliance with international law, the State Department sent RS a statement noting that such assurances had been given. (The Department of Defense offered the same statement.) "Review and monitoring are an integral component of the process for U.S.-origin defense articles delivered to any recipient nation," says David McKeeby, a spokesperson for the Department of State's Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, which oversees U.S. Foreign Military Sales. Following a sale, McKeeby says the recipient country must sign an agreement "which grants U.S. government officials full access to monitor how that defense article is being used throughout its lifetime."

What's not clear, however, is that after decades of supplying Pakistan with arms, how this time will be any different.