- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 20, 2016

As governor of Indiana, Mike Pence, the Republican vice presidential nominee, put the safety of American troops in Afghanistan ahead of jobs in his state.

In the end, both troops and economic development won out.

In 2012, Army Lt. Gen. Michael D. Barbero, then in charge of the Pentagon campaign to defeat terrorists’ improvised explosive devices (IEDs), told Congress that a large conglomerate in Pakistan was “less than cooperative” in stopping the No. 1 killer of American troops in Afghanistan.

The issue: The Taliban and other terrorists were making powerful bombs out of the same chemicals that the conglomerate, Fatima Group, used to make fertilizer. Its calcium ammonium nitrate (CAN) was too easily falling into the hands of bombmakers, and Fatima’s top brass did not seem to care.

In January 2013 The Washington Times reported that the Midwestern Fertilizer Co., a firm in which Fatima was a lead investor, was on the verge of winning a big tax break in Posey County, Indiana, to build a jobs-generating fertilizer plant.

The state had agreed to sponsor $1.3 billion in tax-free bonds, meaning Fatima would save millions of dollars on lower interest rates to the buyers.

It was a clear case of economic development and jobs for a rural area of Indiana.

But the decision was not that simple for Mr. Pence, who had served in the House of Representatives and traveled to Iraq or Afghanistan to meet troops from Indiana each year he was in Washington.

On a trip to Washington in the spring of 2013, he stopped by the Crystal City office of Gen. Barbero, who ran the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization (JIEDDO).

Now retired, Mr. Barbero recalls that he talked to the governor about the dangers troops faced from Fatima’s lax control of its products.

“He was really engaged,” Mr. Barbero said. “I’ve dealt with a lot of politicians. He was really sincere and serious about this decision. I was really, really impressed by him and his approach. The politically expedient thing would have been to approve everything and move forward and create the jobs and all that. I gave him top cover to do that: ‘Whatever decision you make, I’ll support you.’ But he made a hard decision.”

He remembers the governor saying, “I’m not going to take any steps that could harm our troops.”

“He made the apolitical decision,” Mr. Barbero said. “A lot of politicians would not have done that.”

After the meeting, Mr. Pence announced he could not support the project.

“Without assurances from our Defense Department that the materials which have been misused by the enemy in Afghanistan will be permanently removed from production by Fatima Group in Pakistan, I cannot in good conscience tell our soldiers and their families that this deal should move forward,” he said.

After Mr. Barbero’s stinging congressional testimony, Fatima had begun taking steps to control its products. Mr. Pence’s stance spurred it to do more.

In 2014 Mr. Barbero told The Times that Fatima had agreed to take a number of steps. It was stopping CAN sales at two provinces bordering Afghanistan and cutting out middlemen who were diverting the chemical to the Taliban.

“My assessment is, A) they are sincere, and B) they have taken some actual steps to try to put some control on the free flow of this material,” said Mr. Barbero.

In 2013 about 80 percent of all IEDs in Afghanistan used homemade explosives as the main charge, of which 47 percent contain fertilizer with calcium ammonium nitrate and 45 percent potassium chlorate, according to JIEDDO.

Mr. Pence announced in 2014 he was reopening talks with Fatima based on its improved performance.

“Following Indiana’s withdrawal of support for this project, U.S. officials have reported that the government of Pakistan and Fatima Group have provided an unprecedented level of cooperation and transparency in addressing the concerns that precipitated the withdrawal of our support,” Mr. Pence said. “Specifically, U.S. Department of Defense officials have confirmed that an experimental formula is being developed by Fatima Group to be more inert and less detonatable to limit its usefulness to extremists and terrorists.”

Midwestern Fertilizer Co. says on its webpage that the $2.4 billion nitrogen fertilizer plant will go under contract soon and one day create more than 2,500 jobs.

The financing now includes tax-exempt bonds issued by Posey County, and the state is promoting the deal.

“As the project moves forward, MFC will continue to meet with state and local leaders to ensure that the partnership among MFC, Posey County and the state of Indiana provides real and sustainable benefits to the entire community. Community engagement, which is consistent with our values will be critical to our success,” the website says.

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