US lawmakers question aid for Pakistan’s F-16 upgrades

September 17th, 2008 - 11:16 am ICT by IANS  

F-16Washington, Sep 17 (IANS) US lawmakers have questioned a Bush administration plan to divert more than $250 million in military aid to Pakistan to help it pay for upgrading F-16 fighter aircraft, with some suggesting that Islamabad may use them against India.”Do we have flying Al Qaeda?” asked Gary Ackerman, Democratic chairman of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia at a hearing called by him on “Defeating Al Qaeda’s Air Force: Pakistan’s F-16 Programme in the Fight Against Terrorism”.

The title of the hearing itself cast doubts on the administration’s suggestion that the upgraded F-16, built by Lockheed Martin Corp, would be the most effective weapon against Al Qaeda and Taliban terrorists in and around Pakistan’s tribal areas.

Fellow Democrats and Republicans alike voiced doubts about Pakistan’s commitment to going after the militants and frustration at Islamabad’s stance on any US cross-border raids with Republican Ed Royce raising concerns about a relationship that was, he said, cantered on a fighter jet.

Questioning the decision to supply air-to-air missiles along with new F-16s that Pakistan is buying, he asked: “Isn’t India the only regional play against which this (air-to-air capability) would be applicable?”

At the hearing coming days after Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama accused Islamabad of diverting US military aid for a build up against India, Ackerman said: “This is a perilous time for Pakistan and crucial one for American policy there. It’s imperative that we get it right.”

At issue was getting Pakistan the hardware and training “needed to effectively fight terror rather than spending our money and theirs on weapons systems simply to make Pakistani generals feel good about themselves”.

To help pay for the planned upgrades, the Bush administration has asked Congress to reallocate by Oct 15 Pakistan’s remaining $110 million in fiscal 2008 US grant aid for Pakistan’s military purchases.

In addition, it is asking to shift another $142 million for the upgrades next year. Starting at the end of 2009, Pakistan would foot the updates out of its own funds, officials told Congress.

But by Ackerman’s calculation, the mid-life update of Pakistan’s F-16 fleet would cost $890 million with “US taxpayers on the hook for $445 million, or half the cost of the upgrade programme”, contrary to administration’s earlier assurances that Pakistan will pay for all but $109 million of the total cost.

Ackerman said he had opposed the sale of F-16s to Pakistan since the initial notification back in June of 2006.

“I, so far, remain unconvinced, despite the administration’s nifty justification…that Pakistan needs F-16s to assist us in the fight against terror.”

Questions about Pakistan’s capacity and their will to fight the terrorists in their midst have also been raised consistently since 2001, he said.

“Capacity to fight can be addressed with our assistance, but their will to fight cannot,” Ackerman said, suggesting: “Too many Pakistanis see this fight as an ‘American war’.”

To be prosecuted successfully, it must be viewed by Pakistanis as a war for Pakistan’s survival, it has to be perceived by them as their fight, he said.

Bush administration officials on the other hand contended that the F-16 had taken on a kind of “iconic” importance to Pakistan as a symbol of the ups and downs of the bilateral relationship and commitment to each other.

The F-16 “has achieved strategic importance as a symbolic barometer of the overall state of our relationship”, said Donald Camp, principal deputy assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs.

Vice Admiral Jeffrey Wieringa, director of the Pentagon’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency, said a so-called mid-life update for the existing 46-plane F-16 fleet would greatly boost Pakistan’s ability to conduct close-air support and night precision attack missions.

The upgrades would let older F-16s use precision guided munitions that could dramatically reduce “collateral” damage and civilian casualties, Wieringa said.

US help in footing the upgrade bill will provide the newly elected government of President Asif Ali Zardari “valuable fiscal flexibility” as he deals with rising food and fuel prices, Camp said.

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