A senior U.S. official said Feb. 3 that Washington is still considering Pakistan’s controversial request to buy F-16 fighter aircraft, as the two countries held in-depth security talks.
Top Pentagon official Douglas Feith told a joint press conference with Pakistani officials in the garrison town of Rawalpindi that the sale of the military jets “continues to remain under consideration.”
Pakistan, a key ally in the U.S. war on terror, has been pushing for the planes since a deal to buy 40 of them was scuttled in the 1990s. Nuclear rival India strongly opposes the sale.
Asked what was preventing Washington from delivering the F-16s, Feith would only say: “It is an important issue and it will be dealt with at the right time.”
However the leader of Pakistan’s delegation, Defense Secretary Hamid Nawaz, was more optimistic, saying “there is a lot of hope in the air” about acquiring the jets.
Since allying itself with the U.S. in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Islamabad has looked to Washington to rectify what it calls an imbalance of power with its much larger neighbor India.
Pakistani officials have indicated that they want to buy 25 F-16s — worth around $25 million each — by mid-2005 to add another squadron of aircraft to its existing fleet.
The Feb. 3 Pakistan-U.S. Defense Consultative Group meeting mainly covered defense cooperation, India-Pakistan relations, the war on terrorism and the situation in neighboring Afghanistan and Iraq, officials said.
“We talked about regional security issues and had good discussion of the views that Pakistan has about its relations and dialogue with India, the regional defense issues — we discussed our common work together on the war on terrorism,” said Feith, the undersecretary of defense for policy.
The Pakistani side presented its arms shopping list during the meeting and Feith said the U.S. side was trying to help Islamabad on issues of “common interest”.
Nawaz said Pakistan had made “significant acquisition of equipment” but declined to give details.
The meeting was the first since Washington last June declared Pakistan a major non-NATO ally, a designation which is supposed to ease the sale of U.S. military hardware.
The U.S. Senate last month approved a $388 million budget that includes military aid to Pakistan and its war-torn neighbor Afghanistan, but has so far stalled on the F-16 issue.
The allocation is designed to bolster the capabilities of Pakistan’s armed forces which are hunting suspected al-Qaida fugitives along the rugged border with Afghanistan.
It follows an earlier notification by U.S. defense officials of a possible $1.3 billion arms package for Pakistan.
This would include eight P-3C Orion planes to strengthen surveillance of Pakistan’s coastal and border regions in a bid to stop the movement of terrorists and drugs, U.S. defense officials have said.