The Bush administration confirmed Thursday it plans to reallocate counter-terrorism aid money for Pakistan to allow that country to upgrade U.S.-supplied F-16 fighter planes. The move is drawing criticism from some members of the U.S. Congress. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.
The Bush administration, in advance of next week's Washington visit by Pakistani Prime Minister Yousef Raza Gilani, says it has agreed to shift aid money earmarked for counter-terrorism to an upgrade of Pakistan's aging fleet of F-16 fighter jets.
At issue is about $230 million in aid money approved by Congress for military equipment and training that had been earmarked for law enforcement and counter-terrorism purposes.
Under the proposed re-programming, Pakistan could use the money to upgrade about 40 old-model F-16's in its arsenal for several years. U.S. officials say the planes would get new avionics and equipment to put them on a par with new F-16's Pakistan is buying under an arms deal approved in 2006.
The U.S. Congress could block the change and initial reaction has been negative, with leading Democrats questioning the utility of fighter planes in counter-terrorism operations.
But in a talk with reporters, Acting State Department Spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos said Pakistan has used F-16's in fighting insurgents along its border with Afghanistan.
He said the aid shift was raised by Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmoud Qureshi in his Washington visit earlier this month, and that the administration believes it is a way to both enhance the Islamabad government's anti-terrorism capabilities, and ease its financial burden in the face of soaring energy and food prices.
"We took at look at this and decided that, because these [planes] could be used in this way, and because it was so necessary to continue this fight against the extremists, that this was good opportunity for us to, number one, assist the government with the request - this new democratically-elected elected government with the request that they made to us. And number two, to help to support their capability and our capability to fight extremists in the area," he said.
In comments Wednesday, Senate Democrat Patrick Leahy and House Democrat Nita Lowey, both of whom chair key foreign affairs appropriations subcommittees, expressed reservations about the aid shift.
Lowey said it is incumbent on both the State Department and the Pakistani government, if they want Congress to support the action, to demonstrate clearly how the F-16's would be used to fight al-Qaida and the Taliban.
The New York Times reported Thursday that Pakistan has used the F-16's against the extremists only on rare occasions, because of concern about potential civilian casualties.
It said U.S. officials believe the upgrade would greatly enhance the planes' ability to strike insurgents more accurately and reduce the risk to others.
The Bush administration has provided Pakistan with more than $10 billion in military and economic aid, since it sided with Washington in the war on terrorism after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.
Some members of Congress believe the program has been weighted too heavily toward security assistance.
President Bush is to meet Prime Minister Gilani at the White House next Monday for talks expected to be dominated by aid and security issues.