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Military men for rent: world's No. 2 tries harder

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It was a gentlemen's agreement, transacted in less than two hours time. Pakistan's military leader, always the perfect host, served tea and pastry to his somewhat beleaguered guest, Robert Mugabe, who smarted that he not only had the perennial problem of Joshua Nkomo, but that his white-officered Air Force was becoming more and more of an internal security threat.

By the time the tea was finished, during New Delhi's nonaligned summit in March, General Zia ul-Haq, the Pakistani leader, had effectively outbid Yugoslavia, East Germany, and Romania to take command of the Zimbabwe Air Force. Only a few ''details'' remained to be sorted out.

Pakistani Air Vice-Marshal Azim Halepota assumed his duties in Harare in August - Pakistan's first such venture into the heart of Africa.

Such casual encounters, reminiscent of medieval European courts, have catapulted Pakistan into the third world's second-largest supplier of military manpower abroad, after Cuba.

With most of its 30,000-man ''for rent'' army now shoring up shaky leaders and guarding military and oil installations in the Arab Gulf, General Zia's martial law government has reaped the all-important patronage of the royal House of Saud.

The Saudis are reportedly paying for Pakistan's Cobra helicopters and its newly acquired F-16s, and, according to Western officials, are now providing Pakistan $1 billion in economic assistance annually. They have also been instrumental in negotiations, now under way, for the possible transfer to Islamabad of a multimillion dollar, Arab armaments production scheme, which was pulled out of Egypt after the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty.

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