WASHINGTON – In a major policy shift, the United States announced Friday it would sell F-16 fighters to Pakistan, rewarding an ally but angering its neighbor and rival, India.
Citing their gratitude for Pakistan’s help against Islamic militants, U.S. officials said they would sell at least 24 of the fighters in a package of aircraft and maintenance services worth about $1.5 billion. President Bush personally telephoned Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh from his ranch in Crawford, Texas, to explain the move, but Singh voiced “great disappointment,” an Indian government spokesman said.
The United States agreed to sell 40 F-16s to Pakistan in the 1980s, but the deal was canceled in 1990 as Washington imposed sanctions against Islamabad for developing a nuclear bomb. The offer of a new deal is another sign that Washington now accepts Pakistan’s possession of the bomb.
Pakistan’s information minister, Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, said the decision was “a good gesture” that demonstrated “relations are growing stronger.”
“This will fulfill our defense requirements,” he said. “We had been lagging behind (India) in conventional weapons. This will improve the situation.”
U.S. officials in Washington insisted that the sale would not upset the balance of military power between the nuclear-armed neighbors. They said India would have a chance to bid for U.S. fighters in a purchase of 126 fighter planes that is planned by the Indian defense ministry.
“We don’t think this sale threatens to change the military balance in any material way,” a senior administration official told reporters at the State Department. “It is in both India’s interest and Pakistan’s interests and in America’s interest that Pakistan feel secure.”
A State Department spokesman said the sale reflected U.S. gratitude for Pakistan’s “invaluable support,” adding that U.S. officials believe it will “encourage its continued participation in the going global war on terrorism.”
Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf “takes numerous risks prosecuting the war on terror,” another U.S. official said.
Sanjaya Baru, a spokesman for the Indian prime minister, said Singh believes that the decision “could have negative consequences for India’s security environment.”
U.S. officials tried to soften the impact by declaring that the United States is committed to doing more for both countries.
“The administration has made a fundamental judgment that the future of this region as a whole is simply vital,” the senior administration official said. He said the U.S. intends to develop further economic, military and economic ties with Pakistan and India.
The F-16 was introduced by the U.S. Air Force in its first version in 1976, and is not a leading-edge fighter by American standards. Some military analysts contend it will not end India’s military air superiority lead. Nevertheless, the sale marked an awkward moment in the improving relationship between India and the United States.
The move also could set back the improving relationship between India and Pakistan. The countries, which have waged war three times over the disputed region of Kashmir, have been taking small steps toward peace for the last 13 months.
The commission investigating the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks called on the United States to make a serious commitment to helping Pakistan, an unstable country that has been a source of virulent anti-Americanism.
The commission said the United States should provide more military help, and support its public schools to offset the influence of the fundamentalist “madrassas” that turn out anti-American militants. It argued that the United States had made a major mistake by allowing Pakistan to become isolated from the West, and to veer toward a dangerous collapse.
Yet critics have questioned growing U.S. military and non-military assistance, saying that the Bush administration may already be providing too much aid for a country that is taking only tiny steps toward the democratic reforms Bush espouses. The U.S. government has offered a package of $3 billion in foreign aid over the next five years to the government of Musharraf, who seized power in a coup.