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U.S. to sell F-16s to Pakistan

From Elise Labott
CNN Washington Bureau

An F-16 Fighting Falcon takes off.
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The United States has agreed to sell F-16 fighters to Pakistan.

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Senior U.S. officials say a deal to sell F-16 fighter jets to Pakistan was approved and the United States will compete for contracts to provide Pakistan's nuclear rival India with the same jets.

President Bush called Indian Prime Minister Monmohan Singh to tell him the decision to go ahead with the sale to Pakistan, the officials announced on Friday.

India has balked at the sale.

India and Pakistan have been at odds for decades over the region of Kashmir.

The United States had banned weapons sales to both India and Pakistan in the 1990s because each had tested nuclear weapons.

One official said that the United States has had to adapt to the reality that both countries have a nuclear capability.

"The U.S. has to live in the world that exists, not the world we wish" exists, the official said. He added that the United States is trying to create a "positive force" and defuse tensions in a potentially dangerous region.

U.S. officials said the sale to Pakistan is the result of the deepening relationship with that country.

The improved relations, they said, came about because of President Pervez Musharraf 's actions since the September 11, 2001, attacks -- assisting with the hunt for Osama bin Laden, cooperating with the investigation into the weapons network of Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan and agreeing to elections in 2007.

Last year, the Bush administration declared Pakistan a non-NATO ally and this year, the United States started a five-year aid package to Pakistan worth $3 billion.

Crucial region in terror war

The sale to both countries is part of a new U.S. strategy for South Asia, a region the United States sees as vital to U.S. national security interests and crucial to the war on terror.

A senior administration official said that the Bush administration will continue to broaden its relationship with India.

Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, in India last week, told Prime Minister Singh that the United States will help India become a major world power in the 21st century.

The official said that United States will allow U.S. companies to bid for contracts to provide F-16 fighter jets to India and additional defense technology, such as command and control and early warning systems.

The United States will also beef up its economic, energy and trade ties with India, the official said.

Indian Prime Minister Singh has already accepted an invitation from Bush to visit the White House in July, and the president plans to visit India sometime within the next year, an official said.

Officials said they do not see the sale to either country as tilting the military balance between India and Pakistan. Although officials would not talk specific numbers for the sales, India is shopping for 125 aircraft. Pakistan has had a long-standing request for 25.

However, these officials said, the sale could increase Pakistan's security with India at a time of improved relations between the two countries.

"It is important for the Pakistani government feel secure," one official said. "It is in India's interest that Pakistan feel secure."

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