US set to sell 8 new F-16 fighter jets to Pakistan
Washington: The Obama
administration is preparing to sell eight new F-16 fighter jets to Pakistan,
senior American officials said, an overture intended to bolster a tenuous
partnership despite persistent concerns about Islamabad’s ties to elements of
the Taliban and quickly expanding nuclear arsenal.
The decision comes
ahead of President Obama’s meeting on Thursday with Prime Minister Nawaz
Sharif, which is to be dominated by the president’s decision to extend the
American troop presence in Afghanistan and a quiet effort to get Mr. Sharif to
halt the deployment of a new generation of tactical nuclear weapons.
But Obama, like
President George W Bush before him, is trying to balance pressure on Pakistan
with signs that Washington still considers it a vital ally. Congress was
notified just days ago about the proposed sale of the additional fighters,
although it is not clear if the White House plans to announce the sale of the
aircraft during the visit.
The Federation of
American Scientists, a leading American group that monitors the spread of
nuclear weapons, published a report on Wednesday that shows that Pakistan has
expanded its arsenal to 110 to 130 warheads, up from a range of 90 to 110 four
While those figures
show a steady but expected increase, the group estimated that by 2025 the
figure would rise to 220 to 250 warheads. That would make Pakistan the world’s
fifth-largest nuclear power, behind the United States, Russia, China and
France, but ahead of Britain, which is shrinking its arsenal.
It is the nature, not
the size, of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal that tops Mr. Obama’s agenda. Over the
past two weeks, officials in Washington have said they are exploring whether a
deal might be possible to halt the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons that
American experts fear are vulnerable to being launched without authorization,
or stolen, on the battlefield. Until earlier this week Pakistani officials had
said nothing about the program, although the foreign secretary, Aizaz Chadhary,
told reporters in Islamabad on Tuesday that the country had built “low-yield
nuclear weapons” to counter India, according to the Dawn, a major daily
newspaper in Pakistan.
It is unlikely that
either side will talk publicly about nuclear weapons on Thursday, but Mr. Obama
plans to raise the issue at length, according to administration officials.
Selling Pakistan more arms, however, is an issue that is often discussed more
publicly to signal that Pakistan is acting in its role as a “major non-NATO
ally,” a designation Mr. Bush bestowed after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
The new aircraft, whose
sale could be blocked by Congress, would add to Pakistan’s already sizable
force of fighter jets — it has more than 70 F-16s and dozens of French and
Chinese attack aircraft. But perhaps of equal importance to supporters and
critics alike is the symbolic value of the sale to an ally whose relationship
with the United States has been marked by long stretches of acrimony in recent
Much of the tension has
arisen from Pakistan’s ties to elements of the Taliban, especially the Haqqani
Network, which is linked to Al Qaeda and is seen by American commanders as the
most deadly faction of the Taliban fighting in Afghanistan. In recent years,
numerous American officials have publicly and privately complained about the
support to the Haqqanis provided by Pakistan’s main spy agency, the Directorate
of Inter-Services Intelligence.
At the same time, many
American officials have continued to insist that the best path forward with
Pakistan is to work with its elected leaders and military commanders in hopes
of convincing them to crack down on all militants, not just those who actively
fight the government there. The Obama administration is also looking for
Pakistan to help bring the Taliban to peace talks — an effort that the
administration has pursued for years. As a result, officials are loath to
antagonize Islamabad at a crucial moment in the war in Afghanistan.
The Afghan peace
process appeared to be gaining momentum this summer with meetings between
Afghan officials and Taliban representatives in Pakistan. But it was derailed
by news that the Taliban’s elusive leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, died about two
years ago, and the insurgents have made significant gains in the months since.
Late last month they seized a city for the first time since 2001, taking
Kunduz, Afghanistan, and holding off Afghan forces for more than two weeks
before pulling back.
Fearful that Afghan
forces would be outmatched without American support, Mr. Obama announced last
week that American troops would remain in Afghanistan through the end of his
term. But after 2016, there would only be about 5,500 Americans left in Afghanistan,
so the administration is eager to revive the peace process, which is expected
to be on the agenda when Mr. Obama and Mr. Sharif meet on Thursday.
While Pakistan has gone
after Qaeda operatives since 2001, and allowed the C.I.A. drone program to strike
targets in the country’s tribal areas, it has also provided a safe haven for
the Taliban and supported elements of the Afghan insurgency. Pakistan has also
supported other militant groups fighting in Kashmir and targeting India.
Many in Congress fear that
the F-16 jets are more useful to Pakistan in its long confrontation with India
than for counterterrorism. It is unclear if Congress will approve the deal:
Congress and the State Department are already in a standoff over an effort to
sell used Navy cutter vessels to Pakistan earlier this year.
In March, the House
Foreign Affairs Committee put a hold on about $150 million in foreign military
financing — aid from the United States that foreign allies could use to
purchase American weapons and other military equipment, said American
officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the issue has not
yet been made public.
The committee said the
cutters were not essential to fighting militants, the officials said. But in a
letter sent in February to Secretary of State John Kerry, Representative Edward
Royce of California, the committee’s chairman, and Representative Elliot L.
Engel of New York, the ranking Democrat, outlined their broader concerns about
“We remain deeply concerned that Pakistan has
failed to take meaningful action against key Islamist terrorist groups
operating within its territory,” they wrote.
The letter urged the
administration to change its approach to Pakistan, suspend some assistance and
begin imposing travel restrictions and sanction officials thought to have ties