The Obama administration is expected to formally notify the US Congress of its intention to sell eight F-16 fighter jets to Pakistan in December as efforts to stop it gather momentum.
The notification, many believe, will set into motion a process that guarantees the sale, unless its opponents are able to muster enough votes, and interest in the issue, in Congress.
Earlier reports about the notification, in the run-up to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s US visit in October, were categorically and strenuously rejected by the White House.
F-16s, multirole fighter jets made by US firm Lockheed Martin and once considered and rejected by the Indian Air Force, are seen as a symbol of US support in South Asia.
And reports about a proposal to sell eight more of them — Pakistan already has 70 — alarmed India and pro-India elements in the US, who launched a campaign to stop it.
A showdown seems imminent with a notification coming in December.
But the state department, which clears the sale of US military hardware to foreign nations and notifies Congress, said Monday, “We have no specific announcement to make at this time.”
Besides, the spokesperson added, “as a matter of policy, we do not comment on foreign military sales until they are formally notified to Congress.” Operative words: “formally notified”.
If the administration gets no response from Congress within a specified period after the notification, the sale goes through. If the answer is no, the sale would stand blocked.
“The executive branch has rarely ever gone against congress in such situations,” a congressional source said, adding, “the alternative is a messy showdown no one wants now.”
The administration sent Congress something called the Letter Of Offer (LOA), which has been variously described also as “informal notification” or “pre-notification”, in October.
That was around the time of the Sharif visit. An announcement was widely expected then, but none came. An official, in fact, denied reports Congress had been notified.
But the intention to sell the fighter jets, which in South Asia are seen as a symbol of US support and backing, was not denied. India and pro-India elements in the US were alarmed.
Reports also then suggested, now discounted, that the US was prepared to offer Pakistan a nuclear deal like the one it has with India in return for capping its fast growing nuclear arsenal.
Efforts were afoot soon to stop the deal from going through. Specially by Indian Americans, who got ready to reprise their role mid-wifing the civil nuclear deal.
“Our first task is to stop the sale of F-16s to Pakistan,” said Shalli Kumar, who recently floated Republican Hindu Coalition backed and endorsed by all major Republican party leaders.
The American Jewish Committee, a powerful advocacy group that is known to have supported India and related causes before, has also thrown its substantial weight behind the effort.
But can they stop the sale from going through?
“Pakistan has too many detractors on the Hill now for the sale to go through, not without a showdown,” one of the congressional aides said. A congressional hearing wasn’t ruled out.
But Michael Kugelman, a south Asia expert with think tank Woodrow Wilson Center, said the sale will indeed be opposed because of “increasing impatience” with Pakistan.
In the end, he argued, the deal will go through because there is growing appreciation of Pakistan’s counter-terrorism efforts in northern Waziristan, under operation Zarb-i-Azb.
Further, Kugelman went on, some on the Hill also want to reassure Pakistan of the continuing cooperation to offset speculation about the phasing out of financial support.