- Associated Press - Monday, February 29, 2016

WASHINGTON (AP) - Pakistan said Monday at the start of talks with the United States that a contentious sale of F-16 fighter jets would strengthen the South Asian nation’s ability to mount counter-terrorist operations and promote regional stability.

The U.S. government this month approved the sale of the aircraft, radar and electronic warfare equipment to Pakistan in a deal worth nearly $700 million.

Neighboring India, a historic rival of Pakistan, opposes the sale, which has also drawn criticism from some U.S. lawmakers. Congress could potentially block the deal although such action is rare.

Pakistani Foreign Affairs Adviser Sartaj Aziz said he appreciated the U.S. leadership’s public assessment that Pakistan uses F-16s effectively against terrorists.

Secretary of State John Kerry last week told a House committee that Pakistan’s existing fleet of F-16s have been critical for its counter-terrorism fight on the western border with Afghanistan.

But Aziz urged the Obama administration to do more “to bring Congress fully in the picture about the positive steps taken by Pakistan to further our mutual interests and the very significant change in ground realities that has taken place in the past two-and-a-half years.”

Kerry did not mention the F-16s sale in his remarks on Monday, but he commended Pakistan’s counter-terrorism operations, including in North Waziristan, a tribal area from where militants have launched cross-border attacks into Afghanistan.

Pakistan has been accused of targeting some militant groups but nurturing or turning a blind eye to others. Kerry welcomed Pakistan’s commitment not to differentiate among terrorist groups. He said groups like the Haqqani network and Lashkar-e-Taiba seek to undermine Pakistan’s relations with its neighbors.

Kerry said that at Monday’s talks they would also discuss Pakistan’s “obligations of being a responsible state with nuclear weapons.”

As the threat of Islamic extremism has grown in Pakistan, so has international concern grown on the security of the nation’s nuclear arsenal. Experts say that Pakistan’s nuclear stockpile is growing fast, and it is developing tactical nuclear weapons to deter rival India’s larger conventional forces.

Kerry noted that the U.S. and Russia had succeeded in reducing their nuclear stockpiles.

“We are moving in the other direction, and I think it’s important for Pakistan to really process that reality and put that front and center in its policy,” Kerry said.

He looked forward to Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif being among world leaders attending a nuclear security summit to be hosted by President Barack Obama in Washington at the end of March.

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