The Straits Times says

US second-guesses Afghanistan policy

US President Donald Trump's Fort Myer speech on Afghanistan will count as a landmark event in his young administration's foreign policy towards Asia. For one thing, it is the most detailed, and considered, statement that he has made directly on a key issue that concerns the Asian region. Second, it revealed a leader coming to grips with the intricacies of his job and acting in the national interest, even if it means second-guessing policies and promises that he announced while on the stump. Third, even allowing for the fact that such statements are crafted by skilful speech writers, Mr Trump seems to have taken the long view. That is not bad for a leader who withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership precipitously.

Several points are becoming clear. Not only will the US keep troops in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future, but Mr Trump's reluctance to cite numbers also suggests that even an escalation is not ruled out. There also is the sobering change of tack towards Pakistan, which he accused of taking billions of dollars of American money while harbouring the very terrorists whom the US was fighting. This, he said, "will have to change... and immediately". The last time Islamabad endured such threats from Washington was in the aftermath of the Sept 11, 2001 attacks, when the State Department's Mr Richard Armitage threatened that Pakistan would be bombed into the Stone Age if it failed to cooperate in curbing Al-Qaeda.

The other key element of the strategy is India. Mr Trump vowed to further develop that strategic partnership, even as he called upon New Delhi to step up to the plate on Afghanistan with enhanced economic assistance and development. Tellingly, he announced that the US is committed to pursuing with India "shared objectives in South Asia and the broader Indo-Pacific region". While this is music to the ears of Afghans and is welcomed by Indians, currently caught up in a tense border tangle with China, Islamabad and Beijing heard the words with predictable misgiving.

Heading into its 17th year, Afghanistan has been America's longest-running war. With no fewer than 20 US-designated foreign terrorist organisations active in Pakistan and Afghanistan, the highest concentration anywhere, this is a battle which the United States knows it cannot let up on without putting its own security, and that of the world, at grave risk.

Pakistan has suffered greatly because of terrorism. The sooner it realises that it has much to gain by joining wholeheartedly in the fight to eliminate the scourge, rather than pick between bad terrorists and "good" ones focused on India, the better. Indeed, that is the best way to loosen the US strategic yoke to India. As for China, it surely must be aware that the American President is focusing now on two of its close allies, North Korea and Pakistan. That cannot be a pleasant feeling.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 26, 2017, with the headline 'US second-guesses Afghanistan policy'. Print Edition | Subscribe