WASHINGTON — The Bush administration plans to shift nearly $230-million in aid to Pakistan from counterterrorism programs to upgrade that country's aging F-16 attack planes, which Pakistan prizes more for their contribution to its military rivalry with India than for fighting insurgents along its Afghan border.
Some key members of Congress have greeted the proposal with dismay and anger, and may block the move. Lawmakers and their aides say that F-16s do not help the counterterrorism campaign and defy the administration's urgings that Pakistan increase pressure on al-Qaida and Taliban fighters in its restive tribal areas.
The timing of the action also caught lawmakers off guard, prompting some of them to suspect the deal is meant to curry favor with the new Pakistani prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, who will meet with President Bush in Washington next week, and to ease tensions over the 11 members of the Pakistani paramilitary forces killed in an American airstrike along the Afghan border last month.
The financing for the F-16s would represent more than two-thirds of the $300-million that Pakistan will receive this year in American military financing for equipment and training. Last year, Congress required those funds to be used specifically for law enforcement or counterterrorism purposes. Pakistan's military has rarely used its current fleet of F-16s, which were built in the 1980s, for close-air support of counterterrorism missions, largely because the risks of civilian casualties would inflame antigovernment sentiments in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.
State Department officials say the upgrades would greatly enhance the F-16s' ability to strike insurgents more accurately, while reducing the risk to civilians. The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because Congress is weighing the plan, said the timing was driven by deadlines of the American contractor, Lockheed Martin, and its subcontractors, and was not related to Gilani's visit or the airstrike.
Having the United States pay for the upgrades instead of Pakistan would also free up cash that Pakistan's government could use to help offset rising fuel and food costs in the country, which have contributed to an economic crisis there, the State Department officials said.
Under the original plan sent to Congress in April, the administration planned to give Pakistan up to $226.5-million of the aid to refurbish two P-3 maritime patrol planes, buy new airfield navigation aids and overhaul Pakistan's troubled fleet of Cobra attack helicopters. The State Department notified Congress last week that the administration had changed its mind and would apply the funds to the F-16s.
Lawmakers immediately bridled at the shift, questioning whether the counterterrorism money could be spent more effectively. "We need to know if this is the best way to help Pakistan combat al-Qaida and the Taliban," Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who heads the appropriations subcommittee on State Department and foreign operations, said in a statement.