F-16 Fighting Falcons demonstrate an 'Elephant Walk' as they taxi down the flightline at Kunsan Air Base, South Korea, Dec. 14, 2012.

F-16 Fighting Falcons demonstrate an 'Elephant Walk' as they taxi down the flightline at Kunsan Air Base, South Korea, Dec. 14, 2012. U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Jonathan Fowler

Washington OKs Controversial F-16 Sale to Pakistan

The Pentagon says new warplanes will help Islamabad fight al Qaeda, but U.S. lawmakers don’t want taxpayers footing the bill.

Ignoring lawmakers’ warnings, the U.S. State Department is pressing ahead with the sale of eight new American-made F-16 fighters to Pakistan, which is both a key counterterrorism ally and often criticized for harboring terrorists.

The deal comes amid a Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which has drawn an uptick in American-led airstrikes.

“The proposed sale improves Pakistan's capability to meet current and future security threats,” the Pentagon said in a statement. “These additional F-16 aircraft will facilitate operations in all-weather, non-daylight environments, provide a self-defense/area suppression capability, and enhance Pakistan’s ability to conduct counter-insurgency and counterterrorism operations.”

The deal, which includes eight jets and support equipment, is valued at $700 million, according to the Pentagon. Pakistan already has about 60 F-16s.

Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, objected to the use of taxpayer money to subsidize the sale. Corker expressed his disapproval in a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry, the Wall Street Journal reported.

“We support the proposed sale of eight F-16s to Pakistan, which we view as the right platform in support of Pakistan’s counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations," said a U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the sale publicly. "These operations reduce the ability of militants to use Pakistani territory as a safe haven for terrorism and a base of support for the insurgency in Afghanistan, which is in the national interests of both Pakistan and the United States, and in the interest of the region more broadly.”

Washington and Islamabad have a complicated relationship. Pakistan has helped fight the Taliban and al Qaeda, and yet is also accused of giving terrorists safe haven. Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden hid out in Pakistan for years before American forces killed him in a 2011 raid. American forces used special radar-evading helicopters in the assault so Pakistan would not catch wind of the mission.

Then there’s India — Pakistan's nuclear rival and a key American ally in its pivot to the Asia-Pacific. India’s Air Force has about double the number of combat warplanes as Pakistan, according to the International Institute of Strategic Studies. India has considered buying American-made fighter jets, including the F-16 and F/A-18 Super Hornet, but has yet to sign a deal.

This is not the first time U.S. lawmakers have considered blocking an arms deal with Pakistan. In 2006, House Foreign Relations Committee members threatened, but ultimately did not, block an F-16 sale to Pakistan. Lawmakers have 30 days to block the sale.

The House and Senate are both in recess next week. The House is in recess the week of March 7.

“[W]e are committed to working with Congress ‎to deliver security assistance to our partners and allies that furthers US foreign policy interests by building capacity to meet shared security challenges,” the U.S. official said.