Congressional gridlock reaches to Pakistan's tribes

By David Ignatius
Thursday, July 15, 2010

I am embarrassed when I think back to a conversation last October in Wana, South Waziristan -- deep in the tribal areas -- with Maj. Gen. Khalid Rabbani, the commander of Pakistani forces there. He was about to launch an offensive against Taliban fighters, but he worried that the "clear and hold" phase of the campaign would fail if Pakistan couldn't also "build" through economic development.

Be patient, I told him. Congress is working on a bill that will take a first step toward bringing more jobs to the region.

Nine months later, Congress is still caught in partisan gridlock over the plan to create Reconstruction Opportunity Zones in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or FATA. The House passed the bill in June 2009, but the Senate hasn't voted on its version because Republicans oppose the labor-protection standards that were included in the House measure. The GOP objects that the bill would set a precedent for similar pro-labor rules in future trade legislation.

It's incredible -- sickening is a better word, actually -- that a parochial business-labor dispute is blocking a measure that is so obviously in America's national security interest. Lawmakers seem to have forgotten that this plan would undercut al-Qaeda in its haven, at a time when U.S. soldiers are dying across the border in Afghanistan and when Americans everywhere are threatened by terrorists based in the FATA.

The Obama administration has argued for the bill, but not very effectively. More than a year ago, Richard Holbrooke, the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, wrote to Congress: "We need ROZs now -- economic opportunities must be expanded to quickly follow up military operations."

Yet the administration hasn't been able to broker a compromise -- even though Democrats have strong majorities in both houses. That's a sorry performance -- and another illustration of how the Obama administration's agenda has been hijacked by partisan feuding.

"This is a national security imperative, and we should be focused on it like a laser beam," argues Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), chief sponsor of the House measure. The bill would allow duty-free exports to the United States of some textiles and other products produced in or near the FATA. It isn't a "miracle cure" for the tribal areas, but it's a small step in the right direction.

A Senate bill (without the House's strong labor protections) is sponsored by Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.). Every time a compromise seems near, she says, business or labor groups object because they don't want to concede on the labor issue. The stalemate might be broken by White House intervention, but the administration so far hasn't been willing to spend enough of its scarce political capital.

"It's frustrating," says Cantwell. "Somehow, the issue doesn't rise to the level of importance it deserves."

Powerful senators, prodded by the lobbyists, haven't been willing to budge. Charles Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Finance Committee, opposes Senate action unless the House promises to drop its labor provisions from any final bill; he argues that the House language is more restrictive than past trade agreements and could set a new precedent. On the pro-labor side, Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat, has opposed any deal that doesn't include the strong House standards.

Van Hollen argues that the Senate should pass the milder Cantwell bill and then take the issue to conference, where the two chambers can negotiate a compromise. He says the House side is "willing to make adjustments." But Grassley doesn't want to throw the issue to a House-Senate conference, so the impasse continues.

While Congress dithers, al-Qaeda and its allies continue to plan deadly attacks from their haven in the FATA. The most savage bombings in recent months have been against Pakistani targets. The Pakistani public, which has been hearing promises from Washington for three years about the FATA opportunity zones, is doubtless wondering why the great superpower can't get its act together. Pakistan's leading business groups, which would be most affected by the labor standards, have already blessed the deal.

Recall the Pakistani general in Waziristan: He warned me that his military campaign would falter if, in a year, there wasn't more economic opportunity in the FATA. There are still a few months left to reach a compromise on a measure that would provide a modest boost for the good guys. But for now, this legislative debacle offers one more sign of our dysfunctional political system.

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