Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani. (Photo: AFP / Getty Images)
Washington - The Bush administration plans to shift nearly $230 million in aid to Pakistan from counterterrorism programs to upgrading that country's aging 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 fighters of Al Qaeda and the Taliban in its tribal areas.
The timing of the action caught lawmakers off guard, prompting some of them to suspect that the deal was meant to curry favor with the new Pakistani prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, who will meet with President Bush in Washington next week, and to ease tensions over the 11 members of the Pakistani paramilitary forces killed in an American 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 American military financing for equipment and training.
Last year, Congress specified that those funds be used for law enforcement or counterterrorism. Pakistan's military has rarely used its current 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 accurately, while reducing the risk to civilians. The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because Congress was weighing the plan, said the timing was driven by deadlines of the American contractor, Lockheed Martin.
Having the United States 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 intended to use up to $226.5 million of the aid to refurbish two of Pakistan's P-3 maritime patrol planes, buy it new airfield navigation aids and overhaul its 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.
Representative Nita M. Lowey, a New York Democrat who heads the House appropriations subcommittee 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 that upgrading the avionics, targeting 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 had been briefed on the issue, and who spoke on condition of anonymity, raising the question whether the funds could be spent on counterterrorism 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 Sept. 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 Pakistan's older F-16s.
At that time, the United States 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.
The debate over the F-16 financing comes at a time when Congress has grown increasingly frustrated with the administration's Pakistan policy, arguing it has been weighted too heavily on security assistance. The United States has given more than $10 billion in military aid to Pakistan since the Sept. 11 attacks, when President Pervez Musharraf agreed to become an ally in the campaign against terrorism. Of that amount, $5.5 billion 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.
Senior administration officials, including top military officers, are also voicing increasing exasperation with Pakistan's efforts to combat militants in the mountainous region along the border with Afghanistan. "We need Pakistan to put more pressure on that border," Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on "The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer" on PBS on Tuesday.