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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.

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"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?"

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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.