The House of Representatives has approved President Obama's request for a sharp increase in economic and military assistance to Pakistan. The measure, a version of which is pending in the Senate, has been the subject of intense discussions between the Obama administration and key lawmakers.
Called the Pakistan Enduring Assistance and Cooperation Enhancement Act, the measure would authorize $1.5 billion annually in non-military aid over the next five years, and an initial $300 million and more in subsequent years to help Pakistan in its fight against extremists.
In the economic area, President Obama made clear he wants Congress to approve a key provision that would create Reconstruction Opportunity Zones for duty free exports in Pakistan's border areas with Afghanistan.
Richard Holbrooke, U.S. Special Representative for Pakistan and Afghanistan, addressed the purpose of these zones in remarks at the State Department on Wednesday, saying the effort holds tremendous importance for progress.
"The area covered by these ROZ's is where the refugees are and when they go back to houses which have been destroyed and shops which have been destroyed, and try to rebuild their lives, an opportunity for them to have this kind of chance through this bill is all the more important," said Richard Holbrooke.
U.S. officials and members of Congress supporting the plan have said decisions on locations for the preferential trade zones would be made in concurrence with the Pakistan and Afghan governments.
The House measure is designed to strengthen Pakistan's democratic institutions, judicial and education systems, and funnel assistance to agriculture and rural development and support access to education and development for women.
One provision calls for "proper oversight of all educational institutions, including madrassas" and "regular monitoring of curriculum by Pakistan's Ministry of Education to ensure students receive a comprehensive education."
In addition to the $1.5 billion in annual economic aid, the House measure authorizes $300 million in 2010 to create a new Pakistan Counterinsurgency Capability Fund to help the government fight extremists, with additional allocations as needed until 2013. Another $400 million is included in a separate war funding bill, making a total of $700 million for the fund.
However, accountability provisions in the bill are aimed at ensuring that U.S. aid is used wisely and efficiently.
Assistance could stop unless the U.S. president annually certifies Pakistan is cooperating with nuclear nonproliferation efforts, dismantling nuclear supply networks, and making progress fighting terrorist groups. And all aid must flow through an elected civilian government.
Language was modified in the face of objections from the White House and Pentagon. But House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman asserts the remaining conditions are neither rigid nor inflexible and would not constrain the U.S. military in helping Pakistan.
"We are simply asking Pakistan to follow through with the commitments it has already made," said Howard Berman. "If the [U.S.] president is unable to make these determinations, then we should be asking ourselves much deeper questions about what we really hope to achieve in Pakistan. By including these accountability provisions in this bill, we lay down an important market that Congress will no longer provide a blank check."
Minority Republicans opposing the measure asserted it attempts to "micromanage" U.S. security assistance to Pakistan. Indiana Republican Dan Burton and other Republicans objected to restrictions on Pakistan's use of U.S. funds to purchase or upgrade F-16 aircraft.
"There is too much micromanaging in this bill," said Dan Burton. "This is a war over there and we should be supporting our ally in every way policy so that the Taliban is not victorious."
The legislation states that Pakistan can use no more than $142,000,000 of security assistance funds authorized for the 2009 fiscal year to upgrade F-16 fighter aircraft in order to complete a bilateral agreement signed in 2006.
However, another Republican Ed Royce said conditions in the bill are justified based on past experience with Pakistan.
"It takes the position that while we must work with the Pakistani government our [past] experience demands greater accountability from that government," said Ed Royce. "No blank checks. That the Pakistan government denounces this bill's conditions frankly should be a selling point."
In approving the legislation, the House rejected a Republican alternative measure and a separate attempt to kill the measure.
Final legislation emerging from Congress will be the product of negotiations to resolve differences between the House measure and one in the Senate.
The co-sponsor of the Senate measure, Democratic Senator John Kerry, said the House measure was "overly restrictive" and "counterproductive". The Senate's version has been supported by the White House.