Washington, July 24 : In a move which has attracted criticism from a section of US Congressmen, President George Bush has reportedly planned to shift nearly 230-million-dollar aid to Pakistan from counter-terrorism programs to upgrading that country's aging F-16 jets, because "Pakistan prizes more for their contribution to its military rivalry with India than for fighting insurgents along its Afghan border".
The financing for the F-16s would represent more than two-thirds of the 300 million dollars that Pakistan will receive this year in American military financing for equipment and training. Bush's plans assume significance especially ahead of Pakistan Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani's scheduled visit to US later this month. The two leaders are expected to meet next week in Washington.
According to the New York Times, some members of the US Congress have greeted the proposal with "dismay and anger, and may block the move". These lawmakers say that F-16s do not help the counter-terrorism campaign and defy the US 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 of them to suspect that the deal was meant to curry favour with the new Pakistani prime minister, and to ease tensions over the 11 members of the Pakistani paramilitary forces killed in an American air-strike along the Afghan border last month (on June 12).
Last year, the US Congress required those funds to be used specifically for law enforcement or counter-terrorism purposes. Pakistan's military has rarely used its current fleet of F-16s, which were built in the 1980s, for close-air support of counter-terrorism missions, largely because the risks of civilian casualties would inflame anti-government sentiments in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).
US 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 Congress is weighing the plan, said the timing was driven by deadlines of the American contractor, Lockheed Martin.
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 in the country, which have contributed to an economic crisis there, the US State Department officials said.
Under the original plan sent to the US Congress in April, the US administration planned to give Pakistan up to 226.5 million dollars 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 counterterrorism 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 J. Leahy, a Vermont Democrat who heads the appropriations subcommittee on State Department and foreign operations, said in a statement.
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 9/11 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 dollars purchase of up to 36 new F-16C/D fighter aircraft and 640 million dollars in missiles and bombs. The deal included a package for 891 million dollars in upgrades for Pakistan's older F-16s.
The debate over the F-16 financing comes at a time when Congress has grown increasingly frustrated with the US administration's Pakistan policy, arguing it has been weighted too heavily on security assistance.
The US has given more than 10 billion dollars in military aid to Pakistan since the 9/11 attacks, when President Pervez Musharraf agreed to become an ally in the campaign against terrorism. Of that amount, 5.5 billion dollars was specifically intended to reimburse the counterinsurgency efforts by the Pakistani Army, but Congressional auditors have said that Pakistan did not spend much of that money on counterinsurgency.