U.S. yet to toss that bone to Pakistan

November 17, 2002|By JAY HANCOCK

PAKISTAN had hoped, once American midterm elections were over, that the United States might move a little closer toward keeping its promises.

In return for basically commandeering the country in the war against al-Qaida, Washington had hinted at broad trade rewards, including increased U.S. patronage of the critical Pakistani textile industry.

Under heavy U.S. pressure, Islamabad let American forces use its airspace and military bases and reversed its support of Afghanistan's Taliban regime, enraging radical Islamists far and near. For its part, the Bush administration vowed to mint "the best possible package to assist Pakistan" and to try to "stimulate Pakistan's major exports, including improving market access for textile and apparel products," as State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said a year ago.

But Washington shows no signs of adding to the pittance in improved trade opportunities it gave Pakistan last spring.

Besides promising forgiveness of $1 billion in Pakistani debt, which Congress has not yet approved, the administration gave Islamabad only a small increase in the limits on textile and apparel sales to the United States.

The package included lifting U.S. barriers to combed cotton yarn that had already been deemed illegal - twice - by the World Trade Organization. And it raised other limits, such as quotas on woven blouses, that the Pakistanis hadn't asked for and couldn't use.

Bush's miserly deal cheered the American textile industry, which opposed help for Pakistan. And it gave the president leverage to win approval for Trade Promotion Authority - which allows Congress to approve or reject, but not amend, trade bills - and gain control of Congress.

But now that elections are done and the political risk of doing the right thing has receded, Pakistan, one of the poorest nations, thought it might get a new bone or two from the richest. Fat chance.

"It's an issue where we have provided quite a bit to give to the Pakistanis, but I don't think there was much more to be done," says a State Department official who is involved in the matter.

In a visit to Islamabad a week ago, Alan P. Larson, U.S. undersecretary of state for economics, offered no new possibilities for Pakistani trade benefits, the official said.

In fact, the topic of textile imports is so dicey that the entire U.S. diplomatic and trade bureaucracy is trying not to discuss it and is instead waiting for nonexistent signals from the White House.

"It's such a sensitive subject that we're not going to stick our heads above the parapet until we have a consolidated U.S. position," says another State Department official.

What a shame. Pakistan, with a tradition of secular politics and admiration for Americans, could be one of our best friends. Pakistan, with a nuclear arsenal and a shaky government fending off religious crazies, could also be our worst nightmare.

Free trade is the antidote to radicalism. Jobs and incomes are the enemies of hatred. President Bush has said as much.

Pakistan's textile and apparel sectors make up 60 percent of its industrial employment. Pakistan needs the world buying these products in much greater quantities, but through August, Pakistani imports to the United States, its biggest customer, were down 1.3 percent compared with the corresponding period in 2001.

U.S. officials say higher Pakistani imports would hurt American manufacturers. And they argue that, because under WTO rules textile quotas will disappear in 2005, Pakistan will get access soon enough.

But prohibitive tariffs will remain. Plus, Pakistani factory owners want to cement relationships with new U.S. customers before 2005. And U.S. textile mills are already under siege from imports; it's hard to believe that preferences for Pakistan would increase the damage much.

"I'm not saying we're ungrateful for the loan write-offs and all that, but that just benefits our books," says a Pakistani diplomat. "The U.S. needs to create a constituency with the people at the street level in Pakistan. The goodwill would be so tremendous."

But instead of goodwill, Washington is creating more bad blood.

Pakistan has seen this movie. In the 1980s the United States joined Islamabad in aiding Islamic radicals fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, making great pledges of better relations and assistance. But when the Soviets disappeared, in the eyes of many Pakistanis, so did American promises.

A year ago, as the U.S. assault on Osama bin Laden was in full fury, Pakistan Press International filed this optimistic news dispatch:

"The United States Sunday assured long-term partnership with Pakistan," it said, "making it clear that this relationship will not end after the crisis in Afghanistan is over."

Suckers.

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