ISLAMABAD: Pakistan is left with barely a few days to decide if it will pay for the eight F-16 aircraft it intends to procure from the United States from its own kitty or else lose the opportunity of buying the jets believed to be one of the best fourth-generation multi-role fighters.

“If Pakistan still desires to buy the F-16s, it would have to issue the Letter of Acceptance (LoA) by May 24,” a diplomatic source said. Pakistan has been reluctant to issue the LoA for the purchase of the fighters after the US Congress barred the administration from subsidising the sale through the Foreign Military Financing (FMF) programme.

Under the initial financing arrangement, the US was to pay about $430 million for the eight jets worth $699 million from FMF funds, while the remaining cost was to be borne by Pakistan itself. But, after the Congressional hold on partially financing the deal through FMF, Washington asked Islamabad to foot the bill from its national resources.

Islamabad rejected the idea of fully paying for the aircraft and refused to make any pledge unless the restriction on financing through FMF was lifted.

Adviser to the Prime Minister on Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz, meanwhile, said that if the issue was not resolved Pakistan could explore the possibility of buying some other aircraft to meet its requirements.

The diplomatic source said that the opportunity to buy the F-16s could be lost after the expiry of the offer, in case Pakistan missed the deadline. The cut-off date, he stressed, was particularly important because the F-16 manufacturer Lockheed Martin was planning to close the production line of the aircraft at Fort Worth, Texas, by the end of next year. Pakistan was expected to be one of the last two customers. The financing row is under discussion between Pakistan and the US, but the source was not much optimistic about Congress withdrawing its restriction without Islamabad taking steps to address its concerns. “Realistically speaking that is unlikely to happen in four days,” he maintained.

Congress wants Pakistan to take action against the Haqqani network; give assurances about ending its tactical weapons and restricting medium-range Shaheen III ballistic missile; and free Dr Shakeel Afridi, who remained part of the US hunt for Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden before he was killed in a raid by Special Forces on his Abbottabad hideout.

Despite the continuing controversy, positive statements have been issued by both Pakistan’s Foreign Office and the US State Department over the past few days indicating their desire to move ahead.

Read: No intention to diminish relations with Pakistan: US

“Pakistan-US bilateral relationship is much larger and broader than the F-16 issue,” FO Spokesman Nafees Zakaria said at the weekly media briefing on Thursday. The statements, a diplomatic observer believes, were meant to prevent distraction from other big issues in the relationship including Afghanistan, trade and civilian assistance.

Meanwhile, Mr Zakaria confirmed on Friday the May 24 deadline for LoA. To Dawn’s query, he said: “We are aware of it. The discussions among the US administration and Con­g­ress as well as between Pakistan and the US are continuing. It’s a time-consuming process. We derive sat­is­faction from the fact that the US administration is fully supportive as far as sale and FMF are concerned.”

Published in Dawn, May 21st, 2016