WASHINGTON: The Obama administration is preparing to sell eight new F-16 fighter jets to Pakistan, senior American officials said, an overture intended to bolster a tenuous partnership despite persistent concerns about Islamabad’s ties to elements of the Taliban and quickly expanding nuclear arsenal.
The decision comes ahead of President Obama’s meeting on Thursday with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, which is to be dominated by the president’s decision to extend the American troop presence in Afghanistan and a quiet effort to get PM Nawaz to halt the deployment of a new generation of tactical nuclear weapons.
But Obama, like President George W Bush before him, is trying to balance pressure on Pakistan with signs that Washington still considers it a vital ally. Congress was notified just days ago about the proposed sale of the additional fighters, although it is not clear if the White House plans to announce the sale of the aircraft during the visit.
The Federation of American Scientists, a leading American group that monitors the spread of nuclear weapons, published a report on Wednesday that shows that Pakistan has expanded its arsenal to 110 to 130 warheads, up from a range of 90 to 110 four years ago.
While those figures show a steady but expected increase, the group estimated that by 2025 the figure would rise to 220 to 250 warheads. That would make Pakistan the world’s fifth-largest nuclear power, behind the United States, Russia, China and France, but ahead of Britain, which is shrinking its arsenal.
It is the nature, not the size, of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal that tops Obama’s agenda. Over the past two weeks, officials in Washington have said they are exploring whether a deal might be possible to halt the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons that American experts fear are vulnerable to being launched without authorisation, or stolen, on the battlefield.
Until earlier this week Pakistani officials had said nothing about the program, although the foreign secretary, Aizaz Chadhary, told reporters in Islamabad on Tuesday that the country had built “low-yield nuclear weapons” to counter India, according to a local newspaper in Pakistan.
It is unlikely that either side will talk publicly about nuclear weapons on Thursday, but Obama plans to raise the issue at length, according to administration officials.
Selling Pakistan more arms, however, is an issue that is often discussed more publicly to signal that Pakistan is acting in its role as a “major non-NATO ally,” a designation Bush bestowed after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
The new aircraft, whose sale could be blocked by Congress, would add to Pakistan’s already sizable force of fighter jets — it has more than 70 F-16s and dozens of French and Chinese attack aircraft. But perhaps of equal importance to supporters and critics alike is the symbolic value of the sale to an ally whose relationship with the United States has been marked by long stretches of acrimony in recent years.
Much of the tension has arisen from Pakistan’s ties to elements of the Taliban, especially the Haqqani Network, which is linked to al Qaeda and is seen by American commanders as the most deadly faction of the Taliban fighting in Afghanistan. In recent years, numerous American officials have publicly and privately complained about the support to the Haqqanis provided by Pakistan’s main spy agency, the Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence.
At the same time, many American officials have continued to insist that the best path forward with Pakistan is to work with its elected leaders and military commanders in hopes of convincing them to crack down on all militants, not just those who actively fight the government there. The Obama administration is also looking for Pakistan to help bring the Taliban to peace talks — an effort that the administration has pursued for years. As a result, officials are loath to antagonize Islamabad at a crucial moment in the war in Afghanistan.
The Afghan peace process appeared to be gaining momentum this summer with meetings between Afghan officials and Taliban representatives in Pakistan.
But it was derailed by news that the Taliban’s elusive leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, died about two years ago, and the insurgents have made significant gains in the months since. Late last month they seized a city for the first time since 2001, taking Kunduz, Afghanistan, and holding off Afghan forces for more than two weeks before pulling back.
Fearful that Afghan forces would be outmatched without American support, Obama announced last week that American troops would remain in Afghanistan through the end of his term. But after 2016, there would only be about 5,500 Americans left in Afghanistan, so the administration is eager to revive the peace process, which is expected to be on the agenda when Obama and PM Nawaz meet on Thursday.
While Pakistan has gone after Qaeda operatives since 2001, and allowed the CIA. drone program to strike targets in the country’s tribal areas, it has also provided a safe haven for the Taliban and supported elements of the Afghan insurgency. Pakistan has also supported other militant groups fighting in Kashmir and targeting India.
Many in Congress fear that the F-16 jets are more useful to Pakistan in its long confrontation with India than for counterterrorism. It is unclear if Congress will approve the deal: Congress and the State Department are already in a standoff over an effort to sell used Navy cutter vessels to Pakistan earlier this year.
In March, the House Foreign Affairs Committee put a hold on about $150 million in foreign military financing — aid from the United States that foreign allies could use to purchase American weapons and other military equipment, said American officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the issue has not yet been made public.
The committee said the cutters were not essential to fighting militants, the officials said. But in a letter sent in February to Secretary of State John Kerry, Representative Edward Royce of California, the committee’s chairman, and Representative Elliot L Engel of New York, the ranking Democrat, outlined their broader concerns about Pakistan.
“We remain deeply concerned that Pakistan has failed to take meaningful action against key terrorist groups operating within its territory,” they wrote.
The letter urged the administration to change its approach to Pakistan, suspend some assistance and begin imposing travel restrictions and sanction officials thought to have ties to militants.
This article is in partnership with The New York Times