Legislation has been introduced in the U.S. Congress to create preferential trade areas in Pakistan and Afghanistan as a way to limit the expansion of violent Islamic extremism. Separate but similar versions of legislation in the House of Representatives and the Senate would create Reconstruction Opportunity Zones that would allow certain goods from Pakistan and Afghanistan to enter the United States duty free.
At a news conference on Capitol Hill to announce the initiative, Democratic Representative Chris Van Hollen said the objective is to provide a highly-visible sign that the United States is committed to economic development in both countries.
"To send a strong message that the U.S. is a partner in working with Pakistan and Afghanistan - not just to defeat the scourge of extremism, but on a long term basis to try and help with the economies in both countries and provide what support we can," said Chris Van Hollen.
Van Hollen said the situation in both countries underscores the urgency of passing the legislation, adding that leaders in Pakistan and Afghanistan have stressed the need to supplement military strength with development initiatives.
Pakistan's Ambassador to the United States, Husain Haqqani, and Afghanistan's Ambassador Said Jawad, reinforced that point.
HAQQANI: "The young people of Afghanistan and Pakistan's tribal areas need to be given a choice other than employment by the Taliban. And we hope that the creation of Reconstruction Opportunity Zones will enable people to engage in productive employment."
JAWAD: "We are seeing an increase of military, [an] infusion of the [U.S.] military forces [in Afghanistan], which is very much needed and we are grateful for. But at the same time, fighting terrorism and extremism is not just killing terrorists, it is providing hope, jobs and opportunities for the Afghan people."
Under the legislation, economic zones would be designated jointly by the United States, Afghanistan and Pakistan governments.
Representative Van Hollen identified Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas along the border with Afghanistan and Baluchistan as possibilities, but said zones could be located anywhere within Afghanistan.
Republican Congressman Pete Hoekstra says economic zones will not resolve the situation, but that they are part of the solution to complex issues and problems.
And he says bipartisan support for the legislation bodes well for future cooperation between Congress and the Obama administration on a clear strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan.
"As we move forward, it will be a strategy that is sustainable because it is supported across the board here in Congress, the Executive branch and by the American people," said Pete Hoekstra.
Also present to underscore Obama administration support was Paul Jones, deputy to Richard Holbrooke, the president's Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.
"We truly share the goal of this legislation, to fuel sustainable economic development and provide legitimate employment opportunities for the peoples of Afghanistan and Pakistan, particularly in the border areas, in the very troubled border areas, as an alternative to violent extremism," said Paul Jones.
Congressman Van Hollen calls differences between House and Senate versions of the bill "very minor," adding that he hopes the legislation can move as a stand-alone measure rather than as part of one of the 2010 fiscal year appropriations bills Congress will be considering.
Asked whether some members of Congress might oppose the measure because of concerns about worker exploitation in economic zones, Van Hollen said the bill contains labor protection and monitoring provisions, including a role for the International Labor Organization.
On concerns many lawmakers have about increasing economic aid to Pakistan, Van Hollen said he believes there is a consensus in Congress on moving forward with a strategy that protects U.S. security interests and tries to ensure that extremists are not strengthened.