US plan to help Pakistan fight insurgents
The Pentagon wants to send more F-16 fighters. Critics say the jets could threaten India.
Washington — 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.
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.
"I don't know that it helps air-to-air with an entity such as Al Qaeda unless I'm missing something where they're in the air," said Rep. Gary Ackerman (D) of New York, who chaired the hearing. "Do we have flying Al Qaedas?"
The plan includes the sale of about 18 new F-16s, as well as the sale of older-model American F-16s the US military isn't using. Another program would refurbish some of the Pakistani Air Force's planes with more current technology and capability. But the bulk of the planes wouldn't be in the hands of the Pakistanis until the end of 2010, a Defense official says.
The concern over the use of the planes illustrates broader issues about the role Pakistan is playing in the Bush administration's so-called war on terrorism. American officials have grown impatient over Pakistan's inability to fight the insurgency, long perceived to be a US problem, not a Pakistani one.
But in recent months and under new civilian and military leadership, the Pakistani government appears to be making inroads against havens in Pakistan's border region with large operations in places such as the Bajaur region, according to Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and other Defense officials.
The bombing of the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad by militants last month also helped to solidify support for counterterrorism efforts, at least within the Pakistani government, though still not strongly among its population.
"From what I have seen, they recognize the problem, and there is a commitment to do something about it," Admiral Mullen said in an interview this week.
The Pakistanis have made greater use of their fleet of older F-16s as part of this effort. But their limitations have provoked greater urgency among Bush administration officials to get them the planes as soon as possible.
"We are in a bind here because we really need Pakistan in order to prosecute the war against the Taliban," says Loren Thompson, a senior analyst with the Lexington Institute, a think tank in Arlington, Va. "And yet there is a real danger that the weapons will be used for purposes other than that war."
Mr. Thompson believes that in the end the US will be able to sell the planes to Pakistan, albeit with restrictions. At the same time, the Pakistanis must meet other security requirements to house the planes once they receive them so the F-16's technology does not fall into the wrong hands, Defense officials say.