- The Washington Times - Friday, March 25, 2005

The Bush administration yesterday announced the sale of F-16 fighter jets to its anti-terrorism ally, Pakistan, a major policy shift in the region that irked Pakistan’s longtime nuclear rival India.

Pakistan, the only nuclear-armed Muslim-majority nation, is seen as critical to the U.S. strategy in the region. A senior administration official said yesterday there was “no set limit” on what Washington would be willing to sell to Islamabad.

The decision was warmly welcomed by Pakistan, but more coolly received by India.

“This is a good gesture,” said Pakistani Information Minister Shaikh Rashid Ahmed. “This shows that our relations are growing stronger,” he told Reuters news agency.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who was informed of the sale by President Bush in a telephone call, was not pleased.

“The prime minister expressed India’s great disappointment at this decision which could have negative consequences for India’s security environment,” the prime minister’s spokesman, Sanjaya Baru, said.

The decision to sell the fighter jets reflects a shift in American strategy toward South Asia into trying “to build long-term foundations of security and friendship” with Pakistan, India and Afghanistan, the administration official said.

The United States previously had cut off the sales of F-16s to Pakistan in retaliation for its nuclear program and testing.

Relations between the United States and Pakistan improved dramatically with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf’s steadfast support of U.S. actions to oust the Taliban regime in neighboring Afghanistan and fight global terrorism.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice outlined Washington’s strategy during her March 14-21 trip to the region, when she visited India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, before traveling to Japan, South Korea and China, the official said.

The White House confirmed Mr. Bush’s call to Mr. Singh, but noted that the United States was also working on providing India with combat aircraft, perhaps including F-18s.

“The president explained his decision to move forward on the sale of F-16s to Pakistan as well as responding to India’s request for information on the provision of multirole combat aircraft for India,” spokeswoman Dana Perino said.

The administration official, speaking from the State Department on the condition of anonymity, said the United States is willing to discuss even more fundamental issues of defense transformation with India.

These would include “transformative systems in areas such as command and control, early warning and missile defense.”

The United States had agreed to sell 32 F-16s to Pakistan in the late 1980s, but canceled the deal after Islamabad forged ahead with its nuclear weapons program and testing to match similar tests by India.

Asked whether the latest aircraft sale to Islamabad constituted recognition of Pakistan as a nuclear power, the official declined to describe the move as formal diplomatic recognition.

But, he said, “the United States has to live in the world that exists, not the world that we might imagine we wish for; and in the world that exists, these extraordinarily important countries have nuclear weapons.”

He also dismissed the idea that the sale threatened to change the military balance between the two countries in any material way.

Instead, he said, the United States was trying to increase the sense of security in the region in order to expand the diplomatic openings he said were taking place on the subcontinent.

“It is in both India’s interest and Pakistan’s interest and in America’s interest that Pakistan feel more secure,” he said.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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