Washington: The Bush administration plans to shift nearly $230 million (Rs960 crore) in aid to Pakistan from counterterrorism programmes to upgrade that country’s ageing F-16 attack planes, which Pakistan prizes more for their contribution to its military rivalry with India than for fighting insurgents along its Afghan border.
Some members of Congress have greeted the proposal with dismay and anger, and may block the move. Lawmakers and their aides say that F-16s do not help the counterterrorism campaign and defy the administration’s urgings that Pakistan increase pressure on Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters in its tribal areas.
The timing of the action also caught lawmakers off guard, prompting some to suspect the deal is meant to curry favour with new Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, who will meet President George W. Bush in Washington next week, and to ease tensions over the 11 members of the Pakistani paramilitary forces killed in a US airstrike along the Afghan border last month.
The financing for the F-16s would represent more than two-thirds of the $300 million that Pakistan will receive this year in US military financing for equipment and training.
Being courted? Pakistan Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani (left) with chairman of joint chiefs of staff Gen.Tariq Majid. The aid plan is seen as an effort to woo Gilani, who is to meet the US president next week. Photo: Reuters
Last year, Congress required those funds to be used specifically for law enforcement or counterterrorism purposes. Pakistan’s military has rarely used its fleet of F-16s, which were built in the 1980s, for close-air support of counterterrorism missions, largely because the risks of civilian casualties would inflame anti-government sentiments in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. State department officials say the upgrades would greatly enhance the F-16s’ ability to strike insurgents more accurately, while reducing the risk to civilians. The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the Congress is weighing the plan, said the timing was driven by deadlines of the US contractor, Lockheed Martin Corp.
Having the US pay for the upgrades instead of Pakistan would also free up cash that Pakistan’s government could use to help offset rising fuel and food costs, which have contributed to an economic crisis there, the state department officials said.
Under the original plan sent to Congress in April, the administration planned to give Pakistan up to $226.5 million of the aid to refurbish two P-3 maritime patrol planes, buy new airfield navigation aids and overhaul Pakistan’s troubled fleet of Cobra attack helicopters.
The state department notified Congress last week that the administration had changed its mind and would apply the funds to the F-16s.
Lawmakers immediately bridled at the shift, questioning whether the counter-terrorism money could be spent more effectively. “We need to know if this is the best way to help Pakistan combat Al Qaeda and the Taliban,” Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat who heads the appropriations sub-committee on state department and foreign operations, said in a statement.
Representative Nita Lowey, a New York Democrat who heads the House appropriations sub-committee on foreign operations, said in a statement, “It is incumbent on the state department and Pakistan to demonstrate clearly how these F-16s would be used to fight Al Qaeda and the Taliban in order to get congressional support.”
In a two-page notification to Congress, the state department said upgrading the avionics, electronics and radar systems of Pakistan’s older F-16s would “increase the survivability of the aircraft in a hostile environment” and make the “F-16s a more valuable counterterrorism asset that operates safely during day and night operations.” The notification said the modernized systems would also increase the accuracy of the F-16s’ support of Pakistani ground troops, lessening the risks of civilian casualties.
Many congressional officials remain unconvinced. “Using F-16s this way is like hitting a fly with a sledgehammer,” said one senior Senate Democratic aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the current negotiations. It remains unclear whether any lawmaker will block or postpone the financing, and risk harming relations with Pakistan any further.
Even if approved, the upgraded F-16s would not be available until 2011, said one House aide who has been briefed on the issue, and who spoke on condition of anonymity, raising the question whether the funds could be spent on counter-terrorism equipment that could be employed more quickly.
Pakistan agreed to buy about 70 F-16s in the 1980s, and about 40 were delivered before Congress cut off all aid and military sales in 1990, citing Pakistan’s secret development of nuclear weapons.
A new deal was struck after the September 11 attacks to allow Pakistan to buy newer models, in part to reward Pakistan’s cooperation in fighting terrorism.
In 2006, Pakistan was a major recipient of American arms sales, including the $1.4 billion purchase of up to 36 new F-16C/D fighter aircraft and $640 million in missiles and bombs. The deal included a package for $891 million in upgrades for older F-16s.
At that time, the US agreed to use $108 million of its annual security aid to Pakistan to retrofit the older F-16s with equipment to make them comparable to the newer models that will be delivered in the next several years. But the administration promised Congress that the Pakistani government would pay for the rest of the upgrades with its own funds. With Pakistan now facing economic hardships, top Pakistani leaders appealed to senior state department officials to help defray the costs of the ongoing upgrades.
©2008/THE NEW YORK TIMES