In military terms, Donald Trump’s long-awaited new Afghanistan strategy looks very much like the old one. But, on the diplomatic front, he took a risk in confronting unruly, nuclear-armed Pakistan.
Washington has long been frustrated by Pakistan’s provision of cross-border safe havens to some of the Taliban factions and armed Islamist groups fighting against US troops and their Afghan allies.
Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama risked triggering a breakdown in the long US alliance with Islamabad when, without forewarning, he sent commandos into Pakistan in 2011 to kill al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden.
But, rhetorically at least, Trump’s much anticipated national address on Monday, in which he laid out a new strategy to win the United States’ longest war, marked a dramatic increase in pressure on Pakistan.
“We have been paying Pakistan billions and billions of dollars at the same time they are housing the very terrorists that we are fighting,” Trump said.
“That will have to change and that will change immediately.”
Following up on Trump’s speech on Tuesday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned that Pakistan could lose its status as a major US ally and see its US military aid halted.
While Washington may hope that this motivates Islamabad to crack down on the groups that launch attacks into Afghanistan and Indian-administered Kashmir, it does not come without risk.
Harsh US measures could provoke Pakistan and, if the government feels its Cold War-vintage pact with America is under threat, it could turn towards China – the great rival of both India and America.
And, much more than the implied threat to cut military aid to Pakistan, Trump’s request that India play a greater role in stabilising Afghanistan will rattle New Delhi’s most bitter and long-standing foe.