Two Congressional Proposals to Help Shape Obama’s Af-Pak Strategy

Democratic lawmakers are warmly greeting President Obama’s new plan for Afghanistan and Pakistan, which won’t be formally submitted to Congress but does rely in part on passing two bills that never came to a vote during the Bush administration.

The first bill would establish Reconstruction Opportunity Zones (ROZs) along the volatile border between the two nations, essentially using free trade to establish a firmer economic footing in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Any goods produced in the ROZs could be exported to the U.S. duty-free … although in this time of steep recession, it’s tough to see where the market would be for more imported textiles and apparel.

The second bill Obama called on Congress to pass today is a measure once shepherded by Vice President Joe Biden: a tripling of non-military aid to Pakistan that would send $1.5 billion in annual reconstruction money to the politically unstable nation.The Pakistan bill’s chief sponsor, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-MA), was pleased to see it play a central role in Obama’s approach. Kerry said in a statement that the new $1.5 billion authorization would help “build schools, roads, and clinics. On the military side, it will institute strict new accountability for security aid that has for too long been a blank check.”

Another consequence of the bill’s passage could be some bad blood with Pakistan’s other neighbor and occasional nemesis, India. The Indian media has not hidden its alarm at the Obama administration’s support for more aid to Pakistan, alleging that U.S. aid could well end up funding new weapons for terrorist groups.

Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME), who met with the leaders of Afghanistan and Pakistan on an official delegation late last year, summed up the uncertainty that remains in the debate over granting aid to Islamabad:

Pakistan has still failed to pledge to formally cut ties between the Pakistani Intelligence Service, the ISI, and Lashkar[-e-Taiba] and other extremist groups. Pakistan must take unambiguous and durable steps to distance itself from these groups.