The Bush administration has approved a $ 5 billion weapons deal to broaden its strategic ties with Pakistan.
According to State Department spokeswoman Julie Reside, the package to Pakistan includes the sale of 18 new F-16 fighter jets, modernizing 26 used aircraft already in Pakistan's arsenal, as well as providing logistical and other support.
The Bush administration sent the notification to US Congress on Wednesday saying that it was a part of a larger effort to broaden its strategic ties with Pakistan. The administration has been consulting Congress for nearly a year about the sale while Pakistan has been waiting for years to purchase new F-16 jets. Islamabad's support for the United States in countering terrorism has apparently made its case stronger.
The US Congress has 30 days to reject the sale. If it does not, the deal will be considered endorsed. However, rejection is considered unlikely since the Bush administration has been consulting informally the key members of the Senate and House for several months and no major objections have been raised as yet.
Pakistan has been trying for years to buy new F-16 jets. The US Congress cancelled the sale of F-16s to Pakistan in the 1990s fearing that Islamabad would pursue its nuclear weapons program.
The administration's notification to the Congress comes on the heels of an endorsement of the nuclear cooperation with India. But the US State Department has clarified that the two actions are unrelated.
"We believe in treating each country individually," Reside said, adding, "Each country faces defence issues different from the other. The sale is part of an effort to broaden our strategic partnership with Pakistan and advance our national security and foreign policy interests in South Asia.''
"Pakistan is a long-term partner and a major non-North Atlantic Treaty Organization ally," she said. Reside also pointed out that the F-16 sale will not upset the military balance with India. "India has its own plans to upgrade its Air Force, and that the two South Asian powers have a dialogue underway and have reduced tensions over the long-running Kashmir dispute," she said.
Pakistan acquired its F-16 fleet in the mid-1980s and had contracted to buy more. However, the deal was blocked by a 1989 Congressional ban on arms transfer because of Pakistan's then-covert nuclear weapons program. The suspended sale of the aircraft, some of which Pakistan had paid for, became an irritant in bilateral relations for many years.
But the relationship warmed markedly after the September 2001 terrorist attacks amid cooperation by Pakistan in the war against terrorism, including support for the US-led invasion of Afghanistan.
The administration's notice to Congress of the F-16 sale to Pakistan came just after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited the South Asian country on Tuesday, though officials in Washington said the timing was coincidental.
The Bush administration had first announced its intention to make the offer to Pakistan in March last year, as it was also beginning talks on a new strategic relationship with India, including support for that country's civilian nuclear program. But the Islamabad government delayed the purchase because of the need to focus resources on recovery from the devastating earthquake in northern Pakistan last October, according to State Department sources.