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US Lawmakers Assess Challenges in Afghanistan

Members of Congress have heard from foreign affairs experts about challenges the United States faces in carrying out President Obama's new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan.  A House of Representatives National Security and Foreign Affairs Subcommittee discussed the stakes for countries in the region and the role they could play in helping to encourage stability in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In announcing his new strategy for Afghanistan last week, President Obama underscored the importance of regional cooperation, and the need to include such countries as China, India, Russia and others.

House subcommittee chairman Democrat John Tierney said the importance of outside influences where Afghanistan and Pakistan are concerned cannot be under-emphasized.

"Unless all regional actors are engaged with and ultimately view a stable Afghanistan and Pakistan as being in their own best interests, these neighbors will continue to exert behind the scenes pressure and up front material support to their Afghan proxies," said John Tierney. "It's hoped that one day these regional actors will not only withhold from playing harmful roles but will in fact play positive and constructive ones."

From China and Russia, to Central Asian states, and Pakistan and India, witnesses agreed on the need for regional cooperation.

Where India and Pakistan are concerned the picture is complex, involving longstanding rivalries and Pakistani suspicions about Indian intentions in Afghanistan.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Wendy Chamberlain says  one challenge facing the Obama administration is to persuade Pakistan and India that old rivalries should be set aside to confront one common enemy.

"The fact, if we are all very honest with ourselves, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, the United States are all facing the same enemy in this region, and that enemy is al-Qaida and the al-Qaida-like terrorist networks that are attacking both us, the far enemy, and the local governments, the near enemy," said Wendy Chamberlain.

Chamberlain warns against placing conditions on economic assistance to Pakistan, saying the U.S. must demonstrate to the people of Pakistan that it will not abandon them.

Lisa Curtis, with The Heritage Foundation, says increasing U.S. aid to Pakistan, as proposed in legislation sponsored by Senator John Kerry, must balance strengthening moderate forces with ending Pakistani links to extremists.

She says U.S. efforts in Afghanistan must also take into account continuing Pakistani concerns about its regional influence vis a vis India, and longer-term Indian influence in Afghanistan.

"I think it is India's interest to ensure that its involvement in Afghanistan is transparent to Pakistan and the U.S. has a role to play in ensuring this," said Lisa Curtis. "We of course should address forthrightly Pakistan's concerns but at the same time dismiss any accusations that are unfounded."

Deepa Ollapally, of George Washington University's Sigur Center for Asian Studies, says the Obama administration's plan for Afghanistan, involving a new contact group including India, will have a beneficial effect.

"The current strategy which has been to allow Pakistan veto power over India's involvement in formulating regional solutions to the Afghan crisis is not working, and frankly it rewards Pakistan for its behavior so far," said Deepa Ollapally.

On China's role in Afghanistan, Sean Roberts of George Washington University's International Development Studies Program says Beijing's focus will remain focused on economic interests, and stability could only be of help in that respect.

As for Russia, Roberts says Moscow could play a critically important role in a regional approach on Afghanistan but can be expected to look out for its own interests.

"While Russia is interested in preventing Chechen separatists from obtaining support and refuge in Afghanistan, it also retains serious issues of wounded pride in connection with the Soviet failure to develop Afghanistan in the 1970's and 1980's," said Sean Roberts. "In this context, Russia may not be too happy to see the U.S. succeed where it has failed.  Furthermore Russia is extremely suspicious of U.S. interests in central Asia and it tends to view U.S. engagement in Afghanistan as part of a larger campaign to get a foothold in the region."

Roberts says Russia could undermine U.S. influence, citing what he called Russian pressure on Kyrgyzstan to close a key air base to U.S forces, and would also exercise influence in the six-member Shanghai Cooperation Organization dealing with Central Asian security.

Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment's Middle East Program, says U.S. engagement with Iran on Afghanistan would bring little cost but potentially big benefits.

Sadjadpour suggests the Obama administration could achieve more by separating the most sensitive issues in the U.S.-Iranian relationship, such as Iran's nuclear program and its support for terrorist groups, from the question of cooperation on Afghanistan:

"In the short-term I don't think anyone has any illusions we are going to reach a compromise with Iran on their support Hezbollah, on their support for Hamas, or I think in the short-term certainly no one has any illusions there is going to be a any breakthroughs on the nuclear issue," said Karim Sadjadpour. "I don't think this should preclude U.S.-Iran cooperation in Afghanistan, on the contrary I think trying to build confidence on Afghanistan could well have a positive effect on those other issues."

Sadjapour says the United States and Iran have important overlapping interests in Afghanistan, including combating the narcotics trade and preventing a return to power of the Taliban.

On Afghanistan, and other issues, he says the best course for the Obama administration would be to encourage Iranian cooperation as a responsible stakeholder in the region.

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