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US plan to help Pakistan fight insurgents

The Pentagon wants to send more F-16 fighters. Critics say the jets could threaten India.

By Gordon LuboldStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 17, 2008


The American military is beginning a training effort inside Pakistan this week that holds promise as the US helps Pakistan fight tribal militants blamed for much of the increase in violence there as well as in neighboring Afghanistan.

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But a separate initiative to provide jet fighters to the Pakistani Air Force that Bush administration officials believe will be instrumental in the fight has been held up over concerns that Pakistan will use the planes against India, not against extremist elements in its border with Afghanistan.

The US deployed a small unit of about 30 special forces personnel into Pakistan this week to bolster the ability of Pakistan's Frontier Corps to fight its own insurgency.

The team, which also includes some British special forces, is significant, not for its size, but for the expectation that it can give Pakistan the tools to fight militants on its own. That is key to American defense officials who are desperate to reverse violence in the region but say any counterinsurgency there must have a Pakistani face.

That is why a long-proposed sale of new and refurbished F-16 jet fighters to Pakistan has become so critical to the Bush administration, which believes the old fleet of fighters the Pakistani Air Force is using now aren't effective.

The older planes aren't able to fly night missions, and they aren't equipped to drop the kind of precision munitions that could be instrumental in the ground fight against militants.

"Right now, they're basically dropping dumb bombs in the daylight, a fact that does not escape the enemy," says one defense official.

But Congress isn't so sure the Pakistani government can be trusted to use the planes against the tribal militants thought to be responsible for violence in Pakistan as well as in neighboring Afghanistan.

Members of Congress want to know why Pakistan would need a jet fighter that has "air-to-air" fighter capability when all the Pakistanis really need to fight militants from the air is a plane or helicopter with "air-to-ground" or "close air support" capabilities to support its efforts against militants on the ground.

Bush administration officials attempted to reassure lawmakers that the planes were actually being used for their intended purpose during a hearing on Capitol Hill last month as they attempted to get the proposed sales back on track.