Washington: In a policy move, which goes against persistent complaints and suspicions that Pakistan has been diverting US funds intended for counter-terrorism campaigns to build up conventional warfare capacity against arch rivals, India, the Bush administration has now announced plans that will see nearly $230 million in aid to Pakistan, meant for military training and other equipment, being diverted to upgrade that country's fleet of F-16 multi-role fighters.
The F-16s are configured primarily for conventional air-to-air/ground combat and are of little value in combating insurgency-related situations.
Predictably, members of the US Congress have greeted the announcement with anger and reports suggest that they may attempt to block the move. As per convention, all such presidential initiatives receive routine clearance from the Congress as they are considered to be prerogatives of an administration's foreign policy.
In this case, the move appears to fly in the face of persistent criticism that over the years Pakistan has been diverting funds donated by the US to fight terrorism to boost conventional capacity against India. Lawmakers have claimed that F-16s do not help the counter-terrorism campaign and also that Pakistan has steadfastly refused to increase pressure on Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters in its tribal areas.
In a two-page notification to Congress, the State Department said that the upgrade would involve the avionics, targeting and radar systems of Pakistan's older F-16s. These would ''increase the survivability of the aircraft in a hostile environment'' and make the ''F-16s a more valuable counter-terrorism asset that operates safely during day and night operations.''
The notification said the modernized systems would also increase the accuracy of the F-16s' support of Pakistani ground troops, lessening the risks of civilian casualties.
Even if approved, the upgraded F-16s would not be available until 2011, according to officials who spoke to sections of the US media on conditions of anonymity. If true, this raises the question whether the funds could be better spent on other counter-terrorism related equipment that would allow quicker deployment.
The financing for the F-16 upgrades is due to come out of $300 million in funding that Pakistan is due to receive this year for military equipment and training.
State Department officials said the upgrades would greatly enhance the F-16s' ability to strike insurgents accurately, while reducing risk to civilians. The officials, also clarified that the timing was driven by deadlines of the American contractor, Lockheed Martin.
Officials also said that the move would also help in releasing cash flow for a beleaguered Pakistani government that is currently battling rising fuel and food costs, which have already created an economic crisis in the country.
The timing of the action, with new Pakistani prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, scheduled to arrive in Washington next week for a meeting with President Bush, lends itself to the suspicion that Washington may be interested in easing tensions over the killing of 11 members of the Pakistani paramilitary forces in an American air strike along the Afghan border last month.
Though unstated, the move may also be considered as a sweetener for Pakistan, which has already formulated very detailed objections to the clearance of the safeguards document of the Indo-US nuclear deal, which is scheduled to come up for hearing at the beginning of next month. The deal, by common regard, is considered to be very important for President Bush's presidency, as it could represent a rare triumph amongst his foreign policy initiatives.
However, Congress has shown increasing signs of frustration with the administration's Pakistan policy. The United States has so far provided more than $10 billion in military aid to Pakistan since 11 September 2001 twin-tower attacks in New York. Of this amount $5.5 billion was specifically intended to reimburse counter-insurgency operations by the Pakistani Army, but Congressional auditors have said that not much of this money was spent on what it was intended for, but was diverted instead to building up capability against India.