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November 02, 2010

Three Questions: Election’s Effect on US Policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan

by Ira Mellman

Although US foreign policy seemingly did not play a major role in Tuesday's midterm elections, the results may lead to some changes.

Lisa Curtis is a Senior Research fellow on South Asia at Washington's Heritage foundation.

How will a Republican controlled House of Representatives affect US foreign policy?

We are likely to see some changes in foreign policy particularly in regard to Pakistan and Afghanistan in the coming months.

I think we’ll see some pressure on President Obama to drop the July 2011 withdrawal date in Afghanistan. Several Republican leaders including the incoming chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Buck McKeon, have been very clear in their desire to see this timeline withdrawn and for the President instead to focus on a strategy of success in Afghanistan. So I think what we’ll see is the Republicans trying to get a more clear, strong policy toward the region. They’ll call hearings; they’ll probably give voice to US military leaders, particularly General David Petraeus, who have been very clear about their desire to keep a healthy troop level in Afghanistan and give the counter insurgency strategy time to succeed.

How much opposition do you see coming from Democrats and from the White House?

The Democratic Congress had a lot of questions about Afghanistan. They were the ones putting the pressure on President Obama to establish this timeline and even threatening to withhold funding. Frankly, the Republican-led Congress will not put this same kind of pressure on the White House. So in a way, President Obama is going to probably find support for his strategy so long as he drops that timeline for withdrawal. That’s the sticking point.

It seems that when you move across the border to Pakistan nothing is ever so simple.  Is that the situation when it applies to what happens next there?

Yes.  With regard to Pakistan, I don’t see any major changes to the strategy.  I think that the Obama administration faces the same frustrations the Bush administration faced in dealing with Pakistan and the complexities there.   That’s more because of the instability within the country.  You know, there’ve been just hundreds of terrorist attacks in Pakistan this year alone, thousands of people killed in these attacks, you have an unstable civil-military balance of power there.  So, I think the obstacles, the difficulties with the Pakistan policy, would be there regardless of who is in power in the White House.

So, I doubt we’ll see many changes to the strategy towards Pakistan.  I think Republicans generally understand the idea of partnering with Pakistan.  But, they, of course, will be asking the same questions about whether Pakistan is supporting the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, are they doing everything they can to counter the extremists that reside on their territory.  And, so I think we will see questions in that regard but I think largely the Obama administration has handled the Pakistan policy the best they can, given the complex circumstances that are in Pakistan.