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Pakistan, Top U.S. Lawmaker Trade Blows Over F-16 Deal

Pakistan, Top U.S. Lawmaker Trade Blows Over F-16 Deal

Long-simmering tensions between Congress and Pakistan over Islamabad’s alleged support for terrorist groups burst into public view on Thursday as officials from both nations traded blows over the proposed U.S. sale of F-16 warplanes to the southwest Asian nation.

The spat began Tuesday when Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker notified Secretary of State John Kerry he would block the Obama administration’s subsidized sale of up to eight F-16 fighter jets to Pakistan. In a Feb. 9 letter, Corker cited Islamabad’s relationship with the Haqqani network, an extremist group that has a history of destabilizing Afghanistan and targeting U.S. forces there.

“After years of pressuring the Pakistanis on this point, the Haqqani terrorists still enjoy freedom of movement, and possibly even support from the Pakistani government,” wrote Corker. “This is highly problematic given the Haqqani’s clear involvement in killing the very Afghan army and police we have worked for years to train.”

Angered by the accusation, the Pakistani Embassy in Washington on Thursday denied the charge and criticized it as unfounded and ill-advised. “Insinuations of facilitating the destabilizing role of Haqqani network in Afghanistan in any way are indeed unfortunate,” embassy spokesman Nadeem Hotiana told Foreign Policy.

Delays over the proposed deal, first revealed in November 2015, have become a headache in the often troubled U.S.-Pakistan relationship. The sale aims to support the Pakistani military and acknowledge its efforts to root out extremist groups operating in North Waziristan and other tribal areas.

But Corker, following a recent trip to Afghanistan, said he would shelve the funding needed to finance the deal. However, he pledged to lift his hold on the sale of the warplanes itself, an obstacle that has prompted significant lobbying by the U.S. defense giant Lockheed Martin, which manufactures the jets.

“If they wish to purchase this military equipment, they will do so without a subsidy from the American taxpayer,” Corker said in the letter obtained by FP.

It remains unclear if Corker’s hold on the funding will effectively kill the sale, or if Pakistan will find its own sources to finance the costs.

“The Pakistanis really want the planes,” said Daniel Markey, a South Asia expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. “I believe they have been willing to spend national funds for similar purchases in the past … but I’m sure they would want to try every possible option to avoid that.”

A State Department spokesman would not comment on the viability of the deal but defended Pakistan’s recent counterterrorism efforts. David McKeeby, spokesman for the department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, said U.S.-provided equipment has helped the Pakistani military conduct operations against militants in its tribal regions while minimizing civilian casualties. “These operations are in the national interests of both Pakistan and the United States,” McKeeby said.

Hotiana, the embassy spokesman, expressed optimism that Islamabad could resolve concerns from U.S. lawmakers. “We understand that the deal has not been blocked, but there are reservations regarding the financial aspect,” he said. “We intend to continue engaging constructively with the U.S. side to address specific concerns.” Contents of the Corker letter were first reported by the Wall Street Journal.

Photo credit: Aamir Qureshi/AFP/Getty Images