Congressmen on Tuesday questioned the rationale for a Bush administration proposal to divert $252 million in anti-terror funds to upgrade Pakistan’s F-16 fighter jets and expressed doubts about Islamabad’s commitment to fight terror.
The administration says the updates will make the planes more suited for close air support to the campaign against al-Qaeda and its allies in the area bordering Afghanistan. The F-16s have also become a symbol of Pakistani pride and of the Pakistan-US relationship, State and Defence department officials said at a hearing of the House foreign affairs subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia.
But members did not seem convinced. “Let’s be grown-up about this,” said subcommittee chairman Gary Ackerman, Democrat of New York. “Do you think the average Pakistani thinks the symbolism has something to do with fighting terrorism or confronting India? I think we are trying to build the confidence of an ally that is not so allied with us sometimes.”
Donald Camp, deputy assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia, said the F-16s would not affect the balance of power with India.
He said the Pakistani government is now committed to the war on terror. “We want the new civilian government to succeed.”
Camp denied reports that Pakistani troops had fired on American helicopters that had crossed the border.
Vice-Admiral Jeffrey Wieringa, director of the Defence Security Cooperation Agency, said precision munitions for the F-16s would reduce civilian casualties. The updates would also allow the F-16s to be used at night, adding an element of surprise to attacks on militants, another official said.
Reuters quoted Richard Boucher, assistant secretary for South and Central Asia, as saying the State Department believes it has the authority to shift counterterrorism aid to the fighter programme if Congress balks.
Mullen meets Gilani, Kayani
US military chief Admiral Michael Mullen on Wednesday held talks with Pakistan’s top army official and prime minister amid tensions after recent cross-border raids by US forces based in Afghanistan.
Mullen, who flew in to Islamabad on Tuesday, met General Ashfaq Kayani to discuss US and Pakistani military operations against militants in the region bordering Afghanistan, officials said.
Mullen also met Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani. “The ongoing war against terrorism and the situation on the Afghan border came under discussion,” an official said, without giving further details.