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US Congress Evaluates President Obama's Regional Approach to Afghanistan

As Taliban-related violence continues in Pakistan and Afghanistan, some U.S. lawmakers express concern over President Obama's proposal to extend more monetary assistance to Pakistan. Congress began a series of hearings on the issue in the last week. Experts and lawmakers suggested the new administration must hold Pakistan accountable for eliminating safe havens for Taliban and al-Qaida militants.

Attacks blamed on the Taliban continue in Pakistan and Afghanistan, even as the new U.S. president embarks on a regional approach. The administration contemplates engaging regional neighbors such as Iran, India and China.

On Capitol Hill, key U.S. Congressional committees are hearing from foreign affairs experts.

Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told one House panel that Iran's interest in curbing the Taliban in Afghanistan converges with Washington's strategic needs.

"Having almost fought a war against the Taliban a little more than a decade ago, Iran certainly has no interest in seeing their resurgence," he said. "So there is a very important overlapping interest between the United States and Iran in Afghanistan."

He told lawmakers no one has illusions that there will be any breakthroughs soon on differences over Iran's nuclear ambitions or its support of Hezbollah and Hamas elsewhere.

"But I don't think this should preclude U.S. Iranian cooperation in Afghanistan," he added. "On the contrary, I think trying to build confidence in Afghanistan could have positive effect on the other issues."

President Obama proposes engaging China in Afghanistan. Experts say China has significant economic interests.

"Late last year, China made the largest single foreign direct investment in Afghanistan in that country's history, purchasing the rights to a copper $3.5 billion," said Professor Sean Roberts of George Washington University. "Surely if Afghanistan stabilizes, China will be equally interested in the country's oil and gas reserves."

At the summit with the group of 20 major economies last week, President Obama discussed his new approach to the region with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

While the U.S. is fighting militants and seeking to reduce Taliban influence in Afghanistan, experts says Pakistan's goals differ because of its rivalry with India, that some leaders in Islamabad believe India could expand its influence in a Tabliban-free Afghanistan.

"Pakistani security officials calculate that the Taliban offers the best chance for countering India's regional influence, " said Lisa Curtis of the Heritage Foundation.

President Obama's regional approach to Afghanistan also includes a multi-billion dollar civilian development aid package. The money is designated for Pakistan's tribal regions where locals often sympathize with the Taliban.

But lately, U.S. lawmakers have been expressing concern over sending financial and military assistance to Pakistan because of its continued inability to fight the militants.

Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin says he does not believe the United States can buy stability in Pakistan, that Pakistan must first prove it is willing to take on extremists within its own borders.