‘The time to help Pakistan is now,’ said Mr Van Hollen, who on Wednesday co-sponsored a bill to create preferential trade Zones in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The Karachi-born lawmaker is now an assistant to the speaker of the US House of Representatives, which places him in a unique position to press for an early passage of the ROZ bill.
The bill to establish the so-called Reconstruction Opportunity Zones enjoys unprecedented bipartisan support in both the House and the Senate. It is also backed by the White House, the State Department and the Pentagon.
The co-sponsors in the House include Congressman Peter Hoekstra, Congressman Mark Steven Kirk, Congressman Sandy Levin, Congressman Dan Burton, Congressman Adam Smith, Congressman Joseph Crowley, Congressman Jim Moran, Congressman Gary Ackerman, Congressman Peter Welch and Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee.
In the Senate, Democratic Senator Maria Cantwell sponsored the Act, which has been referred to the Senate Finance Committee. The co-sponsors include Senator Robert Casey and Senator Orrin Hatch.
To underscore the widespread support the bill enjoys, key Democratic and Republican lawmakers arranged a joint briefing on the Hill on Wednesday, which was also addressed a White House adviser Paul Jones and the Afghan and Pakistani ambassadors.
‘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,’ said Mr Jones.
‘Achieving that would send a strong message of our long-term commitment to the peace, security and prosperity of the region,’ said Mr Jones, who serves as deputy to Richard Holbrooke, the US special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The endorsement is the first of several steps the Obama administration plans to take to increase stability in the Pak-Afghan region, which in recent months has seen an upsurge in violence.
President Barack Obama has already announced that he will send 17,000 additional US troops to Afghanistan and is also expected to back legislation by Senators John Kerry and Richard Lugar that seeks to more than triple US economic assistance to Pakistan.
‘A safe and peaceful Afghanistan and Pakistan are important to a safe America and ROZs are a vital tool in this effort,’ said Congressman Van Hollen.
‘Opening avenues for employment and job growth in Afghanistan and Pakistan helps shut down paths that lead to terrorism, warlords and the drug trade,’ said Congressman Pete Hoekstra, a Republican.
‘Creating conditions for sustainable economic development is one of the challenges that have to be addressed.’
‘The young people of Pakistan and Afghanistan's tribal areas need to be given a choice other than employment by the Taliban,’ said Pakistan's US ambassador, Husain Haqqani.
‘The ROZs will create 30,000 jobs in Fata, which means that 30,000 people will not be looking for employment with the Taliban.’
Afghan Ambassador Said T. Jawad said that while ‘an increase of US military forces in Afghanistan is very much needed; fighting terrorism and extremism is not just about killing terrorists, it is providing hope, jobs and opportunities for the Afghan people.’
By creating the ROZs, the US was sending ‘the right kind of message,’ he added.
Congressman Van Hollen identified Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas along the border with Afghanistan and Balochistan as possible ROZs, but said zones could be located anywhere within Afghanistan.
On concerns many lawmakers have about increasing economic aid to Pakistan, Mr Van Hollen said he believes there is a consensus in Congress on moving forward with a strategy that protects US security interests and tries to ensure that extremists are not strengthened.