Bill is introduced in the US Senate to set up duty-free export zones in Pakistan-Afghan border

WASHINGTON: A bipartisan bill will soon be introduced in the US Senate to set up duty-free export zones along the Pak-Afghan border, says a senior US lawmaker.

The proposed legislation will allow these trade pockets, known as the Reconstruction Opportunity Zones or ROZs, to export certain duty-free goods to the United States, said Senator Van Hollen, a key Democrat on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.

Mr Van Hollen told a full committee hearing on the US policy in Afghanistan on Tuesday that elements within the Biden administration already support this proposal.

The Karachi-born US lawmaker also urged President Joe Biden to resume the US-Pakistan dialogue by calling Prime Minister Imran Khan because the US needs Pakistan’s support to end the Afghan conflict. He told the key witness, Zalmay Khalilzad, that he too had acknowledged Pakistan’s importance in resolving this dispute in previous statements.

Ambassador Khalilzad, a Trump appointee retained by the Biden administration as a special US representative, too recognised Pakistan’s “special role” in facilitating peace talks and backed Senator Van Hollen’s call for re-engaging Pakistan.

In 2009, the US House of Representatives passed a bill to establish ROZs in Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan. Mr Biden too had backed this legislation, which was never implemented.

“We will be reintroducing that as a bipartisan bill soon,” Senator Van Hollen told the committee, adding that he believed increased trade in this region would contribute to peace.

“This would be a condition-based tool that the president of the United State will have the authority to calibrate, based on conditions on the ground,” he added.

“Is it the kind of tool that you believe could be useful in shaping some of the decisions about the future of Afghanistan?” he asked Ambassador Khalilzad.

“We support the idea of increased trade between Afghanistan and Pakistan, between Afghanistan and Pakistan and Central Asia, and we support increased trade between us and Afghanistan and Pakistan,” the envoy responded. “It seems to me that it is a very worthwhile concept to explore and work on.”

“I know other parts of the administration are looking at it as a positive tool that we can deploy in trying to shape the future of this region,” the senator said, adding that the proposed bill would soon go to the Senate Finance Committee.

The senator then engaged Ambassador Khalilzad in a discussion over Pakistan’s role in the Afghan conflict, pointing out that “the country that has the most direct, potential influence here is Pakistan.”

He reminded Mr Khalilzad that he too has acknowledged Pakistan’s importance, calling it a country that “has direct interest in stability in Afghanistan” and reasons to dislike “chaos and a full-blown war there.”

“Of course, Pakistan fought its own war with the Pakistani Taliban, did it not?” the senator asked. “It did,” Mr Khalilzad replied.

“You have pointed out that Pakistan has helped to facilitate your negotiations with the Taliban in Doha, is that right?” Senator Van Hollen asked again. “It has,” the envoy said.

“How would you characterise Pakistan’s support now?” the senator asked.

“They have been supportive of our efforts to press the Taliban to reduce violence, to enter negotiations with the government of Afghanistan, to be an active participant in peace negotiations including in a (planned) conference in Istanbul,” Mr Khalilzad said.

“Pakistan has a special responsibility given its influence over the Taliban and we appreciate what Pakistan has done so far but we are not there yet,” he said. “We look forward to working with them to get to a peace agreement between the Taliban and the Afghan government in coming weeks and months.”

Senator Van Hollen recalled that after the Soviets left Afghanistan, the United States disengaged from the region, leaving behind “a vacuum that the Taliban filled, and Al Qaeda took advantage of.”

He said that it was important to stay engaged with Pakistan after the withdrawal of US troops to avoid creating another vacuum.