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Plan to Ship F-16s to Pakistan Raises India’s Hackles : Asia: The White House wants the deal. The Bhutto government has already paid $900 million.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A Clinton Administration proposal to ship F-16 jets to Pakistan, despite that country’s suspected nuclear weapons program, is raising Indian hackles and pumping even more venom into already embittered relations on the subcontinent.

From the Pakistani point of view, if America does not allow delivery of the high-performance fighters, for which Pakistan has already paid more than $900 million by U.S. count, it is no better than a double-dealer.

“The feeling here now has become that you can’t trust the Americans,” a Pakistani army general who has served as military attache in Washington said in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, last week.

To objecting Indians, the new American idea amounts to no less than acceptance of Pakistan as a full-fledged nuclear power. And, they claim, delivery of the planes would as much as quadruple the number of nuclear-capable aircraft in their most bitter foe’s arsenal.

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“The Pakistanis are hustling the United States,” Jasjit Singh, a retired air commodore who is director of the New Delhi-based Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses, complained Tuesday.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Sondra McCarty said the Clinton Administration will allow delivery of the Lockheed Corp.-produced jets, known as Fighting Falcons, only if the government of Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto promises to halt its production of nuclear weapons material. She said that even if Pakistan agrees to the deal, it will require approval by Congress.

“The U.S. government has presented to the government of Pakistan a complex proposal to advance our non-proliferation goals in South Asia,” she said. “The proposal would verifiably cap Pakistan’s nuclear weapons material production in return for which, following approval by Congress, Pakistan would be provided . . . release of up to 38 F-16s already paid for.”

The F-16s, and American assistance to Pakistan as a whole, have been frozen since October, 1990, under the Pressler Amendment, which requires the President to certify the South Asian country as free of nuclear weapons as a precondition for U.S. economic and military aid.

Pakistan, a strategically situated ally of the United States during most of the Cold War, had received 40 F-16s before the imposition of the amendment, named for its congressional sponsor, Sen. Larry Pressler (R-S.D.).

In a two-phase purchase program beginning in 1988, the Islamabad government contracted for up to 71 more of the Fighting Falcons and paid $914 million, said Air Force Maj. Tom Larock, a Pentagon spokesman.

But once the ban on aid to Pakistan took effect, Lockheed could not deliver the fighters from its plant in Ft. Worth even if Pakistan had paid in full. And last August, the angry Pakistanis told American officials that they were not going to keep shelling out money for planes they were not receiving.

Until the two countries sort out their rancorous dispute, the planes paid for by Pakistan have been put in storage in the “boneyard” at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona, Larock said.

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Last year, as part of a comprehensive reworking of the Foreign Assistance Act, the Administration proposed dropping the Pressler Amendment, but it relented when members of Congress concerned about weapons proliferation objected.

What Pakistan has managed to build is hotly disputed, but some Western experts say the country may now have six to 12 bombs of the Hiroshima type. The country’s nuclear program was launched by Bhutto’s father, who vowed to construct an atomic bomb even if the populace had to eat grass.

Shocked at the new turn in American policy in an area where he takes an especially keen interest, Pressler met last Wednesday with Indian correspondents in Washington. According to Indian newspapers, Pressler said Defense Undersecretary Frank Wisner had contacted him to suggest consideration of a one-time exception to the Pressler Amendment.

“It is the only piece of non-proliferation legislation on the books, and I think we should be building on it,” Pressler was quoted as saying.

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India exploded a nuclear bomb of its own in 1974 and dwarfs Pakistan by its armed might as well as its population, economic strength and diplomatic clout. Pakistanis say the United States must understand that regional context and recall that the neighbors have fought no fewer than three wars since becoming independent in 1947.

“We’re faced with overwhelming superiority. What do you expect us to do?” Maleeha Lodhi, Pakistan’s ambassador to Washington, said in a recent interview when asked what stance she expected of the United States. “Help us.”

Now back in Islamabad, Lodhi reportedly held meetings with U.S. Ambassador John C. Monjo about the fate of the planes. The Pakistani newspaper Dawn, quoting sources in the Foreign Office, said that in return for embracing the nuclear cap sought by Washington, Pakistan will receive 38 F-16s and other military equipment, including American T-37 jet trainers already on loan to it.

Pakistan is said to have demanded that the issue be settled by March 31.

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Not surprisingly, New Delhi’s reaction was sharp and swift. “The supply (of F-16s) will encourage Islamabad to follow its nuclear program and force India to spend more on its protection and defense,” External Affairs Minister Dinesh Singh said.

The conflict over the planes comes at a particularly bad phase in relations between India and Pakistan. Last week, Pakistan tried to humiliate India before the U.N. Human Rights Commission for alleged large-scale atrocities in the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir, but it opted to “defer” a proposed resolution when it became obvious that international support for the resolution was scant.

The F-16 is of special concern to Indian officials because the jet has no equivalent in their arsenal. A flexible, multi-role aircraft capable of both carrying nuclear bombs and engaging in dogfights, the F-16 has a long combat range, possesses superior electronic warfare capabilities, can be refueled in flight and can operate around the clock.

Times staff writer Norman Kempster in Washington contributed to this report.

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