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US confident F-16s for Pak won't upset India

Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC | September 17, 2008 11:49 IST

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The Bush Administration has defiantly defended its recent decisions to fund mid-life upgrades to Pakistan's US-built F-16 fighter aircraft even if the US taxpayer is left holding the tab, arguing that not only were the planes 'a component of Pakistan's national defence', but that 'the F-16 has become an iconic symbol of our bilateral relationship and our commitment to each other'.

Both senior State Department and Pentagon officials appearing before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs' Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia at a hearing facetiously titled 'Defeating Al Qaeda's [Images] Air Force: Pakistan's F-16 Program in the Fight Against Terrorism' [Images], asserted that these weapons systems were indeed a boon to target the terrorists in Pakistan's tribal areas and unlikely to upset the regional arms balance vis-�-vis India.

Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs Donald Camp, said, 'Pakistan's legitimate defence need is one of the rationales we have always provided for the sale of F-16s'.

"We are not saying that the F-16s have only a counter-terrorism use. They are obviously a part of Pakistan's national defence and they always have been, and what we have said very confidently is that the sale of these F-16s is not going to upset the regional balance," he said.

Camp reiterated that 'we are quite confident of that', and added, 'Obviously, India is also purchasing high performance aircraft and in fact, has considerably more than Pakistan has or will have in the foreseeable future.'

He said that 'those of us who have travelled to Pakistan have noticed that this is not just a military issue, this is not just certainly a President Musharraf issue. You travel the roads and you see brightly decorated trucks on Pakistani roads, they have F-16s emblazoned on the side. That has become a symbol of Pakistani pride if you will'.

Camp said, "Our willingness to provide F-16s has become an important symbol in Pakistan. This request of mid-life updates has come to us from the most senior members of the newly-elected civilian government. It's not just a military-to-military request."

Earlier, Congressman Ed Royce, California Republican and a senior member of the Committee had asserted: "We allowed our relationship with Pakistan to become over-personalized with Musharraf. Has it now become centred over a fighter jet?"

"From what I understand, the current fleet of F-16s has rarely been used for close air support counter-terrorism missions," he said.

Royce expressed little confidence that Pakistan's air force would deploy the F-16s in Pakistan's tribal areas, and noted that the Pakistani government has even negotiated truce with militants along the border with Afghanistan.

Citing analysis by the non-partisan Congressional Research Service, the lawmaker noted that 'less expensive and less sophisticated aircraft such as attack helicopters and combat search and rescue aircraft would appear to have greater utility in combating insurgents than supersonic fighter aircraft'.

Camp said, "One issue that we confront in Pakistan is the belief that the Americans are there in Pakistan and with Pakistan for short-term gains. The point we are trying to make repeatedly and we believe sincerely is that this must be a long-term partnership between the United States and Pakistan."

"The fact that we had 10 years of basically no military relationship in the 1990s --understandable from the point of view of the fact that we could no longer certify that Pakistan is not engaging in a nuclear weapons program -- the downside is that we had 10 years of drought. Pakistani military did not come to the United States for training. We had really no relationship between the services."

Camp said, "The point we want to make to Pakistan and we want to make it dramatically, is that we are there for the long-term."

When the chairman of the Committee, Congressman Gary Ackerman, New York Democrat, asked Camp if weapons sales should be so symbolic, the State Department official replied: "I can only speak to the fact in the Pakistan domestic context, it is."

Also, when Ackerman said if the Pakistanis want the F-16s because of the symbolism but that this symbolism has nothing to do with fighting the terrorists and questioned the Pakistani government's will to do so, another witness, Mitchell Shivers, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defence, Asian and Pacific Security Affairs at the Pentagon, strongly disagreed with Ackerman.

"I do think there is sincerity on their part in taking on this counter-insurgency and counter-terrorist operations in the West and the Northwest quarter," he asserted, adding, "They have been doing it, indeed, air sorties dating back into 2007, indicate that they have taken on this challenge."

He argued, "This is not without some political cost to the leadership in Pakistan. These are air operations against the territory of Pakistan itself. So they are quite controversial with the Pakistani people, but absolutely essential for us."

"They are essential to our service management on the ground in Afghanistan. This is an essential activity to interdict these anti-coalition militants that are going across the border from Pakistan into Afghanistan," he said, adding, "So our service management support this proposal."

Shivers continued, "If you look at our leadership in Afghanistan, they support this. If you look at our leadership within the Pentagon, it's all supportive of using FMF (foreign military financing) for mid-life upgrades for the F-16s."

He said, "We believe the Pakistanis will utilize them in the way that is prescribed here and they are seeking to get this equipment to be more effective. It's not without notice by the militants in the FATA that the Pakistani Air Force lacks capability at night currently. And, it is not without notice that the current capabilities of their F-16s are not effective in precision strikes and therefore these militants can cause civilian casualties, which we hope this upgrade program will hope to present."

Shivers said, "So, all these things come together into our request of Congress to proceed with this."






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