Pakistan will postpone the purchase of F-16 fighter jets from the US in order to provide more relief to victims of the Oct. 8 earthquake, President Pervez Musharraf said on Friday.
"I am going to postpone that," Musharraf told reporters when asked about the purchase of the aircraft while visiting a quake-hit region of northern Pakistan.
"We want to bring maximum relief and reconstruction effort," he said, while stressing that maintaining national security was also important.
The US said last year it was willing to sell Pakistan F-16 fighters and Islamabad was expected to buy about 80 of the fighters made by Lockheed Martin Corp.
An F-16 can cost up to about US$40 million, depending on the model and the configuration.
US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said there were continuing discussions with the Pakistani government.
"But in terms of whether or not the sale is going to move forward, I'd let them talk about it," he told reporters in Washington.
Pakistan is seeking billions of dollars in relief and reconstruction aid after the earthquake that killed more than 73,000 people in its northern mountains.
The 7.6-magnitude earthquake razed almost all major cities and towns in the Pakistani-controlled part of Kashmir, the picturesque Himalayan region that is also claimed by India, and severely affected northern parts of the country.
The earthquake, according to the UN, has affected more than 3.3 million people. Pakistan is already short of cash, as the reconstruction and rehabilitation process remains a gargantuan task. The UN has received only 25 percent of the money it has said is needed for reconstruction efforts.
Dwindling financial resources needed for earthquake reconstruction have pushed Pakistani policy makers to look for ways to lessen the pressure on the country's budget, but analysts added that the move to postpone buying the jet fighters has political considerations as well.
But Musharraf said that while the focus was on recovering from the earthquake, the planes remained an important priority.
"We should never do something that jeopardizes one or the other," he said. "So, both have their importance."
Musharraf had earlier this week said that he would not be cutting military spending. Pakistan and India have fought three wars over Kashmir in the past 58 years.
Pakistan is currently considering two options, either buying fewer than the originally planned 75 planes or importing a previous version of the aircraft from a European country, Dawn, the country's most prestigious English daily, reported on Friday.
Pakistan attaches huge importance to the F-16s, as they constitute an essential element of its air force's capabilities. Pakistan had requested a purchase of F-16s back in the mid-1980s but the US barred the sale of the fighters to Pakistan in 1990 after suspicions mounted that Pakistan was secretly producing a nuclear weapon. Pakistan tested its nuclear weapon in May 1998.
The go-ahead by Bush administration in March of this year to sell F-16s to Pakistan was seen as a reward for Musharraf's cooperation in the war against terror.
Musharraf is an ally of the US in the war against terror and has won accolades from Washington over his support of the US. The news earlier this year that the Bush administration had lifted the restriction of the sale of the fighter jets met with euphoria in Pakistan.
While reconstruction and rehabilitation is a major concern for the government of Musharraf, the announcement on Friday of postponing the purchase was also aimed at placating possible criticism within the country, analysts said.
"This is probably to get political mileage," Ayesha Siddiqua Aga, a security analyst who is based in Islamabad, said, adding that there already criticism over a recent US$1 billion deal to buy Swedish Erie Eye SAAB airborne.
"If you buy major weapon programs, you can not attract foreign aid for relief and reconstruction," Aga said.
Hasan Askari Rizvi, a defense and military analyst based in Lahore, agreed.
"I think this is a middle road that President Musharraf has adopted. He can keep the military happy because of no defense cut while deflect criticism," Rizvi said.