Some in Afghanistan and India praised President Trump's Aug. 21 speech, but his rhetoric set off alarm bells in Pakistan. (The Washington Post)

Relieved Afghan officials on Tuesday welcomed President Trump’s strategy announcement on the war effort here, citing his assurance of broad U.S. military, economic and political support despite a lack of specific pledges, and praising his tough stance on Pakistan, which he denounced for offering safe haven to “terrorists.”

Soon after the speech, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said he was “grateful” to Trump “for this affirmation of support for our efforts to achieve self-reliance.” Kabul’s ambassador to Washington, Hamdullah Mohib, hailed it as “the first time a focus has been put on what Afghanistan must have to succeed.”

But as more Afghans digested Trump’s message, delivered at 5:30 a.m. here, that welcome became muddied with concern over whether the new U.S. policy was too militarized, why it does not lay out a path to peace with the Taliban, and whether the U.S. president’s insistence on no more “nation-building” means he will no longer help strengthen Afghanistan’s struggling democratic system.

The Afghan conflict has been fought for 16 years by Afghan and foreign troops against Taliban insurgents and other groups, making it the United States’ longest war. Since most foreign forces withdrew in 2014, Taliban fighters have fought aggressively and now control districts in almost every province. American military officials have called the war a “stalemate.”

Among the most vociferous critics of the announcement was former Afghan president Hamid Karzai, who denounced Trump’s strategy as “a clear message of killing, killing, killing.”

A woman in Kabul reads a local newspaper displaying a photo of President Trump on Aug. 22, 2017. (Rahmat Gul/AP)

“For us it means more war, destruction and loss of life,” he said in an interview Tuesday. “There was not a single word about the peace effort. It was all talk of war, and we have had enough of that.”

Other commentators thanked Trump for not abandoning the war but stressed that no U.S. military strategy can bring stability unless the Afghan government, weakened by divisions and political unrest, can perform better and institute reforms — precisely the kind of “nation-building” the U.S. government has pursued. 

Some observers said Trump’s focus on attacking global terrorism rather than reaching a settlement with the Taliban seemed to be aimed mostly at an American audience that has grown tired of the war. Trump declared that he would not allow the Taliban to “occupy Afghanistan,” but he described a domestic peace settlement only as a vague “possibility.”

“Afghans want an end to this conflict. We don’t want to be in a war of U.S. and regional interests,” Karzai said in the interview. “What we need is for the United States to help us find peace, rebuild our country and institutionalize the Afghan state.”

The Taliban responded to Trump with swift defiance. “It looks like America does not want to put an end to its longest war . . . and it still is arrogant in its might,” Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said in a statement. “As long as one American soldier remains on our soil, we will continue our jihad. . . . Afghanistan will become another graveyard for this superpower.”

In Pakistan, commentators called Trump’s description of their country as a terrorist haven a worrisome change from past U.S. policies, especially since he also urged Pakistan’s archrival India to increase its economic role in Afghanistan. Pakistan has repeatedly denied providing sanctuary to the Taliban or terrorist groups.

President Trump unveiled a new strategy for the U.S. war in Afghanistan on Aug. 21. (Victoria Walker/The Washington Post)

Elaborating on Trump’s earlier comments, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Tuesday that future U.S. aid would be dependent on whether Pakistan adopts a “different approach” to terrorism and stops sheltering extremists.

“There’s been an erosion in trust because we have witnessed terrorist organizations being given safe haven inside of Pakistan to plan and carry out attacks against U.S. servicemen, U.S. officials, disrupting peace efforts inside of Afghanistan,” Tillerson said.

Economic aid, military aid and Pakistan’s status as a non-NATO ally are all “on the table,” he said.

Sherry Rehman, a former Pakistani ambassador to Washington, said it was “disturbing and disappointing to hear a repeat of Pakistan being pressured to do more to stabilize Afghanistan.” She said her country has “given unparalleled sacrifices” to fight terrorism. “Attempting to isolate and unjustly treat Pakistan will only compound the problem.”

Many Afghans praised Trump for his tough talk on Pakistan, which they see as a major source of instability and violence. But some wondered why he had singled out India as an important regional partner without mentioning Russia, China and Iran, all of which are seeking influence in the Afghan conflict.

In Beijing, Foreign Ministry officials sprang to Pakistan’s defense, saying that the country is “at the forefront of the fight against terrorism” and that they hoped Pakistan and the U.S. government will “cooperate” in that fight “on the basis of mutual respect.”

There was general agreement among Afghans that Trump was right to set no deadlines on U.S. troop withdrawals. President Barack Obama’s policy to set deadlines was viewed here as a strategic error. There was also little debate here over how many U.S. troops Trump planned to send; he did not announce a number but is expected to approve military requests for 3,000 to 4,000 more troops. 

In contrast, the broader implications of Trump’s emphasis on an open-ended military policy seemed to worry a cross-section of Afghans, especially given his statements that ongoing support will be based on unnamed “conditions.”

On social media and in interviews, people pointed out that the Afghan government has been struggling with internal dissent, political unrest and an ailing economy as well as a relentless military conflict. While Afghan officials hope their current reform efforts will help meet Trump’s new “conditions,” others see corruption and poor governance as a major cause of the insurgents’ success.

Ghulam Farooq, 23, a university student, said he hoped Trump’s new strategy will help defeat the Taliban and Islamic State insurgents. But he said it is also important for the United States to “stand firm” on its commitment to support democracy after decades of conflict. 

“The people of our country have become hostages in the hands of both terrorists and corrupt officials,” Farooq said. “All their promises for a better life, security, fighting corruption and creating jobs are just cheap talk. If the U.S. does not put pressure on this, it can bring down all our institutions.”

Sharif Walid and Sayed Salahuddin in Kabul, Shaiq Hussain in Islamabad, Simon Denyer in Beijing and Carol Morello in Washington contributed to this report. 

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