The Obama administration is backing a proposal initiated under former President George W. Bush that would allow poor tribal regions in Pakistan and Afghanistan to sell their clothing and similar goods to US buyers tax-free.
A group of lawmakers in the House of Representatives, led by Rep. Chris Van Hollen, reintroduced legislation on Wednesday that would enable the president to designate 'Reconstruction Opportunity Zones' inside the two countries from which goods could be imported duty-free into the United States.
'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 White House adviser Paul Jones at a Capitol Hill news conference.
'Achieving that would send a strong message of our long-term commitment to the peace, security and prosperity of the region,' said Jones, a deputy to Richard Holbrooke, the US special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The endorsement is the first of several actions the new administration is expected to take to increase stability in the region, which in recent months has seen an uptick in violence and resurgence of Taliban strongholds.
President Barack Obama already has announced that he will send 17,000 additional US troops to Afghanistan, a likely down payment on the request by ground commanders to double the US force to 60,000. The administration also is expected to back legislation by Sens. John Kerry, a Democrat, and Republican Richard Lugar that would substantially increase humanitarian aid for Pakistan.
Van Hollen, an assistant to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, could not say when a vote might happen but said there was strong support among Democratic leaders to pass the bill this year.
Ambassadors from Pakistan and Afghanistan also were on hand Wednesday to lend their support.
'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 ambassador to the United States, Hussain Haqqani.
Haqqani told the congress briefing that the bill will create as many as 30,000 jobs in the tribal areas.
Last week, the administration led a round of intensive talks with leaders from the two countries. At the State Department, Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton, Holbrooke and other senior US officials met separately with a Pakistani delegation led by Foreign Minister Makhdoom Shah Mehmood Qureshi and an Afghan delegation led by Foreign Minister Rangin Dadfar Spanta.
The State Department also hosted trilateral talks with both delegations. Clinton said the three sides would continue to meet on a regular basis.