Bhutto's US Lament Over F-16 Jets Gains Few Fans in Congress

DURING a visit to the US that ends today, Pakistan's Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto charmed politicians, dazzled audiences, and signed contracts that could bring $6 billion in US investment to Pakistan. Then she ran into a brick wall.

The wall, a United States law to restrain nuclear proliferation, kept Ms. Bhutto from her main goal: resolving a dispute with Washington over delivery of 28 F-16 jet fighters paid for by Pakistan six years ago. Despite sympathy from President Clinton, both the law and the planes -- now parked in the Arizona desert -- appear likely to stay put.

''President Clinton must realize that there could be a high global price to pay for not upholding the only effective piece of nuclear nonproliferation law on the books,'' warns Sen. Larry Pressler (R) of South Dakota, author of the law.

The 1985 Pressler amendment bars US aid and arms sales to Pakistan unless the US president can determine that Pakistan does not posses nuclear weapons. In 1990, after President Bush said he could not make such a determination, the US cut its annual $564 million aid package to Pakistan.

Invocation of the Pressler amendment also interrupted the sale of $1.4 billion in military goods to Pakistan, including the 28 F-16 jets, which the US cannot deliver under the terms of the amendment. After paying $800 million toward the total sale, Pakistan wants its planes or its money back.

Supporters of the Pressler amendment say it may have deterred other nations from acquiring nuclear weapons, and making an exception for Pakistan would send the wrong message to states like North Korea and Iran that also harbor nuclear ambitions. It would also compromise the US at a major conference next week in New York, where the future of the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty will be decided.

Clinton administration officials have been trying to modify the Pressler amendment for more than a year, arguing that it is now proving counterproductive.

''In the 1980s, when Pressler was first passed, we drew a line in the sand and said, 'If you cross it we'll never speak to you again.' So it may have had some deterring effect,'' says one senior Pentagon official. ''But once they crossed the line, to say 'We'll never speak to you again' may be hurting us.''

For Pakistanis, the Pressler amendment has been freighted with symbolic significance. The South Asian nation was once seen by Washington as one of its most important allies against communism: It was the back door through which US aid and arms flowed to anti-Soviet freedom fighters in Afghanistan.

Since the war in Afghanistan, Pakistanis say, the US has left its old ally to cope with the war's legacy, which includes bands of unemployed armed militants, at least two of whom were responsible for an attack last month in Karachi that left two American diplomats dead.

In this context, the Pressler amendment has spurred rather than retarded nuclear research, Pakistanis say.

''When the amendment was invoked, Pakistan's conventional capabilities were degraded, therefore making the nuclear option more attractive to the [Pakistani] public,'' says Pakistan's ambassador in Washington, Maleeha Lodhi.

Clinton has tried to circumvent the amendment without actually repealing it: either through a one-time exemption or by selling planes to a third party and turning over the profits to Pakistan. But like the desert-bound F-16s, neither option is likely to fly, in part because of opposition in Congress. Pakistan says it will not relinquish its option to build nuclear weapons until its regional rival, India, does the same.

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