WASHINGTON — In a major policy shift, the United States announced Friday it would sell F-16 fighter jets to Pakistan, rewarding an ally but angering its neighbor and rival, India.
Citing their gratitude for Pakistan's help against Islamic militants, U.S. officials said they would authorize the sale of at least 24 of the fighters in a package of aircraft and maintenance services worth about $1.5 billion. President Bush telephoned Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh from his ranch in Crawford, Texas, to explain the move, regarding which Singh voiced "great disappointment," an Indian government spokesman said.
The United States agreed to allow the sale of 40 F-16s to Pakistan in the 1980s, but the deal was canceled in 1990 as Washington imposed sanctions against Islamabad for its nuclear arms development program. The offer of a new deal is another sign that Washington now accepts Pakistan's possession of the bomb.
Pakistan's information minister, Sheik Rashid Ahmed, said the decision was "a good gesture" that demonstrated "relations are growing stronger."
"This will fulfill our defense requirements," he said. "We had been lagging behind [India] in conventional weapons. This will improve the situation."
U.S. officials in Washington insisted that the sale would not upset the balance of military power between the nuclear-armed neighbors. They said India would have a chance to bid for U.S. fighters in a purchase of 126 planes planned by the Indian defense ministry.
"We don't think this sale threatens to change the military balance in any material way," a senior administration official told reporters at the State Department. "It is in both India's interest and Pakistan's interests and in America's interest that Pakistan feel secure."
A State Department spokesman said the green light reflected U.S. gratitude for Pakistan's "invaluable support," adding that U.S. officials believed it would "encourage its continued participation in the going global war on terrorism."
Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf "takes numerous risks prosecuting the war on terror," another U.S. official said.
In New Delhi, Sanjaya Baru, a spokesman for the Indian prime minister, said Singh believed that the decision "could have negative consequences for India's security environment."
U.S. officials tried to soften the impact of the move by declaring that the United States was committed to doing more for both countries.
"The administration has made a fundamental judgment that the future of this region as a whole is simply vital," the senior administration official said. He added that the U.S. intended to develop further economic, military and economic ties with Pakistan and India.
The F-16 was introduced by the U.S. Air Force in its first version in 1976, and it is not a leading-edge fighter by American standards. Some military analysts contend it will not end India's military air superiority. Nevertheless, the sale marked an awkward moment in the improving relationship between India and the United States.
The decision also could set back the thaw between India and Pakistan. The two countries, which have waged war three times over the Kashmir region, have been taking small steps toward peace in the last 13 months.
The commission investigating the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks called on the United States to make a serious commitment to helping Pakistan, an unstable country that has been a source of virulent anti-Americanism.
The commission said the United States should provide more military help and support Pakistan's public schools to offset the influence of the extremist madrasas that turn out anti-American militants. It argued that the United States had made a major mistake by allowing Pakistan to become isolated from the West and veer toward a dangerous collapse.
Yet critics have questioned growing U.S. assistance, both military and nonmilitary, saying that the administration may already be providing too much aid for a country that is taking only tiny steps toward the democratic reform Bush espouses.
The U.S. government has offered a package of $3 billion in foreign aid over the next five years to the government of Musharraf, who seized power in a coup.
Critics also say that technology developed by Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of Pakistan's nuclear program, has found its way to many countries that could threaten the United States, including North Korea, Libya and Iran.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice eased the way for the sales during a visit to the country last week. Bush is to visit the region soon. Last year, the United States agreed to sell Pakistan another $1.3 billion in U.S. military hardware.