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Opportunities, Challenges Seen in Trump's New South Asia Strategy

President Donald Trump speaks at Fort Myer in Arlington Va., Aug. 21, 2017, during a presidential address on U.S.-Afghanistan strategy, Aug. 21, 2017.
President Donald Trump speaks at Fort Myer in Arlington Va., Aug. 21, 2017, during a presidential address on U.S.-Afghanistan strategy, Aug. 21, 2017.

In U.S. President Donald Trump's long-awaited strategy announcement on Afghanistan, he put forth a case for staying the course and not allowing the country to become a haven for terrorists who would once again pose a threat to U.S. national security.

“I share the American people’s frustration. I also share their frustration over a foreign policy that has spent too much time, energy, money, and most importantly lives, trying to rebuild countries in our own image,” President Trump said, promising to end nation-building and only focus on U.S. national security interests.

Trump warned against a hasty exit from Afghanistan in the face of a growing Taliban insurgency and Islamic State’s emerging threat.

He said the U.S. will stay in Afghanistan for as long as it takes to “win the war” in the country.

Trump, however, said the U.S commitment to Afghanistan is not "unlimited" and support is “not a blank check,” urging the latter to bring forth necessary reforms and fight rampant corruption.

Regional reaction

Reaction to Trump's new South Asia strategy is mixed.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani welcomed the strategy and pledged his government will be a reliable partner.

“I am grateful to President Trump and the American people for this affirmation of support for our efforts to achieve self-reliance and for our joint struggle to rid the region from the threat of terrorism,” Ghani said in a statement.

Ahsan Iqbal, Pakistan’s interior minister, pushed back against the charge that his country harbors terrorists.

"There is neither any tolerance nor any safe haven for any terrorist in Pakistan. Pakistan has paid the highest price for [fighting] terrorism. So, we are fighting terrorism not for any country's sake, but for our own future and for our country's sake,” Iqbal told VOA.

Pakistan's rival, India, welcomed the new strategy.

“India welcomes Trump’s determination to enhance efforts to overcome the challenges faced by Afghanistan and in confronting issues of safe havens and other forms of cross-border support enjoyed by terrorists,” the Ministry of External Affairs said.

China praised Pakistan’s efforts in the ongoing war on terror in the region.

“We believe that the international community should fully recognize Pakistan's anti-terrorism efforts,” Hua Chunying, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, said at a press briefing.

Challenges of the new strategy

Zalmay Khalilzad, a former U.S ambassador to Afghanistan, said he thinks putting pressure on Pakistan is the right approach.

“Confronting the challenge posed by Pakistan directly. This is the most important change. Pakistan has been helping directly the Taliban and Haqqani network to cause frustration in the U.S. and cause the U.S. to abandon Afghanistan and take Afghanistan back to conditions prior to 9/11,” Khalilzad said.

“With respect to India, the president nested this inside a large strategic goal of convincing Pakistan to abandon its support for terror,” Rebecca Zimmerman, a policy analyst with RAND Corporation, told VOA.

She warned that “advocating a closer relationship between India and Pakistan is more likely to cause Pakistan to dig in its support for those groups, as it feels more isolated and threatened.”

Zimmerman added that restarted U.S.-India and India-Afghanistan relationships would need to take into account the growing relationship between China and Pakistan, and should avoid bringing those two countries yet closer.

Hasan Askari Rizvi, a Pakistan-based security analyst, believes the U.S. cannot lose Pakistan in the process.

“The United States and Pakistan are not in a position to discard each other; it’s not possible for both the countries, although they hold grudges against each other,” Rizvi said. “America accuses Pakistan of harboring terrorism and Pakistan accuses Afghanistan of allowing terrorists to use its land to carry out terror activates in Pakistan and criticizes America for not taking any notice or action about it.”

Incomplete regional strategy

Some experts say the strategy leaves out key players, namely Iran, Russia and China. The first two are actively engaged in supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan.

“The speech also failed to address at all the more aggressive interlopers that have been approaching Afghanistan, such as China, Russia, And Iran,” Thomas Johnson, who specializes in Afghanistan and national security issues at the Naval Postgraduate School, told VOA.

“While remote but not entirely out of the question is the probability of Afghanistan becoming the venue for a proxy war between some of these countries if not properly managed,” Johnson added.

James Dobbins, a former U.S special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, serving under both former President Barack Obama and President George W. Bush in Afghanistan, sided with President Trump on the issue of creating a “realistic” environment for peace talks in Afghanistan.

“President Trump indicated that at some time, peace talks may become a realistic option and he wasn’t opposed to that. But he recognized, I think properly, that the Taliban weren’t going to make peace as long as they think to be winning,” he told VOA.

Waheed Muzhda, a Kabul-based Taliban expert, believes the strategy will increase fighting and divide the Afghan Taliban when it comes to peace talks.

“The strategy will strengthen the position of the Taliban members who were opposed to a political solution and the proponents of a political solution will be weakened,” Muzhda said.

‘Timelines’ to ‘conditions’

Ambassador Khalilzad welcomed the president’s decision to shift from a timeline-based approach to a condition-based one.

“Timelines in the past have encouraged terrorists and extremists, and Pakistan to wait us out,” he said.

On the issue of conditions, Dobbins believes it has yet to be seen whether Trump will stick to what he said.

Noor Zahid and Madeeha Anwar contributed to this report.