CRAWFORD, Tex., March 25 -- President Bush rewarded a key ally in the war on terrorism Friday by authorizing the sale of F-16 fighter jets to Pakistan, a move that reversed 15 years of policy begun under his father and that India warned would destabilize the volatile region.
The United States barred the sale of F-16s to Pakistan in 1990 out of concern over its then-undeclared nuclear weapons program, but Bush has forged a close relationship with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf since Sept. 11, 2001, and considers his help crucial in the battle against Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda terrorist organization.
Audio: In an interview with the Washington Post, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice dismissed concerns about the sale of F-16s to Pakistan.
Pakistan initially wants to buy about two dozen aircraft, but Bush administration officials said there would be no limits on how many it could eventually purchase. The administration tried to balance the sale by announcing simultaneously that it would allow U.S. firms the right to provide India the next generation of sophisticated, multirole combat aircraft, including upgraded F-16 and F-18 warplanes, as well as develop broader cooperation in military command and control, early-warning detection, and missile defense systems.
"What we are trying to do is solidify and extend relations with both India and Pakistan, at a time when we have good relations with both of them -- something most people didn't think could be done -- and at a time when they have improving relationships with one another," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in an interview at The Washington Post.
"If you look at it in terms of the region," she added, "what we are trying to do is break out of the notion that this is a hyphenated relationship somehow, that anything that happens that is good for Pakistan is bad for India, and vice versa."
Critics in Washington assailed the decision, saying the administration would effectively supply both sides in a new arms race in one of the world's most dangerous hot spots, even as it rewards an authoritarian government in Islamabad in conflict with Bush's stated commitment to promote democracy around the globe.
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh complained that selling F-16s to Pakistan would shift the balance of power in South Asia. "We're greatly disappointed to hear the news," said Gautam Bambawale, minister for press affairs at the Indian Embassy in Washington. "This is probably going to have negative consequences for Indian security and the security environment" of the region, Bambawale said.
Bush called Singh to explain the decision Friday morning from his ranch here, where he is taking an Easter break, aides said. Indian press accounts took note of the U.S. agreement to allow New Delhi to bid for licenses for joint production of state-of-the-art military equipment, calling it the concession paid in exchange for the fighter sale to Pakistan.
The administration move alters the equation in a part of the world where deep-seated religious and national animosities have resulted in a long, hair-trigger standoff between two nuclear-armed giants. India and Pakistan have fought three wars in the past half-century and have come close to the brink many more times, most recently in 2002 over the disputed region of Kashmir. Tensions have eased since then, and Musharraf plans his first visit to India in four years next month.
The aborted F-16 sale to Pakistan in 1990 has been a source of friction between Washington and Islamabad ever since. President George H.W. Bush decided that year that he could no longer certify that Pakistan was not developing nuclear weapons, and so under a 1985 law the aircraft deal was called off. The Clinton administration agreed in 1998 to reimburse Pakistan for much of the money it had paid for 28 planes.
The Bush administration's decision to authorize a new sale was not its first gift to Musharraf, whose forces have engaged in a sometimes criticized search for bin Laden and his compatriots in the border regions next to Afghanistan. For the past three years, it has provided spare parts to keep Pakistan's aging fleet of warplanes flying. In 2003, Bush announced a five-year, $3 billion financial aid package and last year signed a separate $1.3 billion arms package for Pakistan.
Some analysts said the latest Bush move reflected the new geopolitical reality after the Sept. 11 attacks. "In the post-9/11 world, everything is changed," said Lanny J. Davis, the Washington lawyer who brokered the reimbursement deal for Pakistan. "The notion that we shouldn't give Pakistan military parity with India . . . makes no sense anymore given everything Pakistan has done for us."
Stephen P. Cohen, a South Asia expert at the Brookings Institution, said the sale would give Bush more influence in Pakistan. "This gives us leverage on Musharraf in pushing him in the direction of accommodation over Kashmir and other disputes," Cohen said. Pakistan, he added, remained a top priority for Washington: "It's got nuclear weapons, it's in a critical part of the world, and we can't afford to let it go down the drain."
Others accused Bush of selling out his own rhetoric on democracy and playing a risky game that could renew conflict in the region and even push India closer to China. Former senator Larry Pressler (R-S.D.), who sponsored the 1985 law that ultimately forced the cancellation of the original F-16 sale, called Friday's decision "an atrocity" that goes against "everything the Bush administration has stood for."
"This is just a disastrous thing," said Pressler, who now sits on the board of an Indian technology company. "It raises Pakistan, a country that doesn't stand for anything we stand for, to the level of India," the world's largest democracy. "It has nothing to do with fighting terrorism." Instead, he said, "it gives Pakistan a delivery vehicle for its nuclear weapons."
Congressional leaders have also criticized the prospect of renewing F-16 sales given Musharraf's refusal to allow U.S. investigators to interview Abdel Qadeer Khan, the father of the Pakistani nuclear bomb, who for years ran an illicit international ring providing nuclear technology to rogue nations.
Administration officials declined to comment Friday on whether they had won concessions from Pakistan on the Khan investigation. During her visit to South Asia earlier this month, Rice pressed for more access to Khan. Musharraf told a Pakistani television network this week that he was prepared to send centrifuges to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna for inspection to help determine whether Pakistani technology was used to help Iran develop nuclear weapons.
During her trip, Rice also pushed Musharraf, an army general who took power in a bloodless coup in 1999, to commit to holding elections in 2007, and administration officials cited his assurance in announcing the F-16 sale Friday. But Musharraf has broken commitments to restore democracy before, most recently when he reversed his promise to give up his army office and rule as a civilian.
Staff writer Glenn Kessler in Washington contributed to this report.