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US May Supply Pakistan F-16s After Election: Congressional Sources Stumped By India's Apathy

US May Supply Pakistan F-16s After Election: Congressional Sources Stumped By India's Apathy

Author: Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC
Publication: India Abroad
Date: October 29, 2004

There is growing concern in Congressional circles over the "credible prospect" that the Bush Administration will move to supply F-16 fighter aircraft to Pakistan after the November election.

Senior Congressional sources told India Abroad they could not understand the apathy of the Indian embassy, and its $50,000 a month lobbying firm Akin Gump, to lobby Congress, especially of the Senate Relations Committee members.

There has been, the sources said, no attempt by the embassy, and its lobbying firm, to kill the prospect and to make clear to the Bush Administration that the Senate would not approve such a sale of sophisticated weaponry to Islamabad, ostensibly to counter terrorism but in reality for possible use against India.

Though the concern is most pervasive among Democrats, even moderate and progressive Republican Senators on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, such as Chairman Richard Lugar (Indiana) and Chuck Hagel (Nebraska) voice such fears.

Last month, Pakistan's Air Force Chief Air Marshall Kaleem Sadaat said on the first day of an international defense exhibition in Karachi that the US had indicated it would sell F-16s to Pakistan.

He said after 9/11, Western countries which had been "denying us access to their markets and products," had changed their attitude and "they(the US) indicated they are ready to give us F-16s. Work (on the sale) has stopped because of the (US) election."

"There is a possibility we will get more F-16s.This is not a rumor. It is from the American government."

One senior Congressional source on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee told India Abroad that as soon as he saw Sadaat's remarks,"I button-holed one of my sources at the Pentagon, and his response was:'Nothing has been decided yet--but that does not mean a decision could not come down at any moment."

The source said Congress had not been given an indication of any sale, but recalled that the Administration had designated Pakistan a major Non-NATO ally "without consulting Congress," so a repeat performance could not be ruled out.

A week later, Sadaat repeated his statements in an interview with Jane's Defense Weekly, and went on to say that "18 (fighters) I consider to be the first instalment of what would follow," in one of several deals between the US and Pakistan.

According to weekly, Pakistan is asking that the F-16s be equippped with advanced medium-range air-to-air missiles, along with additional fighter aircraft. Islamabad, the weekly said, has outlined a requirement for beyond-visual-range missile, which AMRAAM would meet.

Sadaat said the US believes F-16s could help Pakistan in its fight against al Qaeda in the country's northwest frontier province, noting that "the US government and (US) Central Command believes it would be helpful to their cause also."

Defense and military analysts however can't see how this argument can be made. They note that AMRAAMs would not be useful against ground targets in Pakistan's northwest, whereas they would be very useful in a war against India.

The possible sale of F-16s to Pakistan gained more credence when Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage told Pakistan's Geo television network earlier this month that the issue of F-16s "is still on the table and we have had discussions with the Pakistani authorities about these matters, and I will leave it right there."

When President Bush's new Ambassador-designate to Pakistan Ryan C Crocker came before the Foreign Relations Committee for his confirmation hearing September 29, Senator Joe Biden of Delaware, the ranking Democrat on the panel asked him about Sadaat's remarks.

According to the questions for the Record submitted to Crocker made available to India Abroad, Biden asked him point-blank whether "the Administration is planning to sell or deliver F-16 aircraft to Pakistan? And if the Administration wishes to take such a step, will you and the other members of the State Department pledge to consult adequately with the members of this Committee before undertaking such a drastic shift in US policy?"

"To the best of my understanding, no decision has been taken regarding selling or delivering F-16 aircraft to Pakistan," Crocker responded. "Should the Administration take any such decision, the State Department will consult with Congress, including members of this committee."

Congressional sources told India Abroad, "As you can see from his (Crocker's) reply to the F-16 issue, this is very, very far from providing any reassurance to India--all he's saying is that he hasn't been brought into the loop on this question."

The source acknowledged that if there's no deal, contrary to Sadaat's public comments, "Why doesn't the Administration come out publicly and on the record and declare that there is no such deal. Why can't they say, 'We are not even considering it, instead of saying no decision has been made? And we do have Armitage on the record saying, 'It's on the table.'"

What this and other sources on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee found "galling" was that neither the Indian embassy nor its lobbyist had contacted any of them, or their Senators, to nip such a potential sale in the bud.

"Akin Gump doesn't appear to have been doing anything to earn its pay,"one source said."I have not received a single call, whether from the embassy or from their lobbyists. If they don't want me to fight on their behalf, I certainly don't intend to keep doing so."

Senior diplomatic sources told India Abroad that they have made clear to the Administration that while they have no qualms about massive economic largesse flowing to Pakistan, India has concerns over sophisticated American military weapons being provided to Islamabad, because over the years such systems and aircraft have always been used against India.

"They are sensitive to our concerns," one official said.

In an exclusive interview with India Abroad last month, Bush when asked if Pakistan, by virtue of being a Major Non-NATO Ally, could receive sophisticated weapons and enter into a defense and security partnership with the United States, replied, "Absolutely not."

The President said "(India Abroad,September 3). , "Our position on stability on the subcontinent has been clear, and it would be wrong to assume that the designation of Pakistan as a Major Non-NATO ally automatically means that there will be an infusion of sophisticated weapons into Pakistan."

Such statements notwithstanding, Congressional sources and others this reporter spoke to acknowledged that the President, if re-elected -- or even if he loses the election to Senator John Kerry and becomes a lame duck till the presidential inauguration January 20 --- could still use a presidential national security interest waiver to push through such a sale, circumventing Congress.

The sources acknowledged that it was unlikely "he would be able to push it through that quick," but the possibility was always there because "they've got a Republican Congress. There are a lot of things they (the Administration) can do with a Republican-controlled Congress."

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