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India’s reaction to Donald Trump’s ‘library’ jibe indicates New Delhi’s deeper anxiety over US’ shifting Afghan policy

US president Donald Trump has, once again, managed to get under India’s skin. His rambling, on-camera Cabinet meeting — described by The Washington Post as a “95-minute stream-of-consciousness defence of his presidency and worldview, filled with falsehoods, revisionist history and self-aggrandisement” — served up an insult for prime Minister Narendra Modi and a belittling of India’s decade-old presence, engagement and commitment towards developmental aid and assistance in Afghanistan.

File image of US president Donald Trump. AP

File image of US president Donald Trump. AP

Talking to colleagues at the White House during chairing the first meeting of the new year, Trump launched into an incoherent and bizarre monologue. He touched on a range of issues: from the US shutdown over the border wall, withdrawal of troops from Syria, the resignation of James Mattis (whom he rather gracelessly claimed to have fired) and ended up defending the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In between, Trump seemed to pressure India to put boots on the ground instead of helping Afghan citizens with infrastructure, healthcare, education, strategic and military training.

In his trademark reality TV style, interspersing comments with exaggerated hand movements and modulating his voice, Trump indicated that India, like every other country, is also taking advantage of the US. “I could give you an example where I get along very well with India and Prime Minister Modi. But he is constantly telling me, he built a library in Afghanistan. Library! That’s like five hours of what we spend (in Afghanistan)… And he (Modi) tells me. He is very smart. We are supposed to say, oh thank you for the library! Don’t know who’s using it (the library) in Afghanistan. But it’s one of those things. I don’t like being taken advantage of,” said Trump.

Trump’s contention seems to be that India’s effort in Afghanistan is “not enough”, and he deems it “unacceptable” given the fact that India enjoys a trade surplus with the US. This is a reiteration of the transactional attitude that Trump brings to the table to define every relationship from personal to professional to even those between nations. And in keeping with his ‘dealmaking’ tenor, he ended the topic with outlandish praise for Modi, a man whom he had mocked just a few seconds ago, claiming that “(I have) great relationship with Prime Minister Modi. He is a great gentleman and a great man and he’s done a fantastic job. He has brought the country together.”

We have witnessed this pattern of behaviour from Trump numerous times during his dealings with world leaders. His dismissal of India’s soft power and goodwill in the troubled central Asian nation drew widespread condemnation from US foreign policy and security establishment and triggered incredulity and outrage in India.

In a rare show of bipartisan support, even India’s chief Opposition party, the Congress, criticised the US president for “sermonising” to India on Afghanistan. India’s incredulity stems from the fact that no one in the external affairs ministry can quite understand which India-built “library” the US president was referring to.

There are reportedly no such projects under way or have been recently completed. A report in Hindustan Times quotes experts as saying that India had funded a library in Jalalabad “but that was many years ago”.

Beyond the bewilderment, India’s outrage seems to have been driven by two factors. One, the fact that the US, a key ally (and probably India’s only ally in Afghanistan) made the jibe. The mockery would have been understandable had it come from an adversarial nation. Second, the negation of India’s significant contribution towards Afghanistan’s stability and prosperity is a repudiation of a foreign policy initiative that has survived governments and the test of time.

The projects carried out in Afghanistan by India — its fifth largest donor —often in conditions hostile to its interests and personnel, are more than mere infrastructure projects. As this ORF piece posits, “The Afghan Parliament built by India is not merely an edifice, but a reflection of India’s democratic credentials. Therefore, for the people of Afghanistan, these are credentials of friendship and altruistic support.”

The Modi government has refrained from issuing an official response, but in a detailed unofficial rebuttal carried widely in Indian media, the government listed projects worth $3 billion to “educate” Trump on the level of its investment, stakes and contribution in Afghanistan. It pointed out the “critical role that developmental assistance can play in transforming human lives” and reminded Trump that “India does not send its armed forces abroad except under the specific mandate of UN peacekeeping operations.”

In a measure of the seriousness with which India is treating the US president’s comments, India listed five critical areas in which it has made and continues to make significant contributions: Infrastructure projects, capacity building, economic development, connectivity and humanitarian assistance and gave detailed examples of the work that has already been carried out.

For instance, infrastructure projects include the building of new parliament, the Zaranj to Delaram 218-km road for facilitating movement of goods and services to the Iranian border. Capacity building includes training for Afghans and over 1,000 scholarships, supply of wheat by way of humanitarian assistance, a 400-bed children’s hospital, direct air freight corridor and Chabahar Port as examples of connectivity projects.

BJP general secretary Ram Madhav gave a caustic response to Trump on Twitter:

This isn’t the first time Trump has derided India or Modi. But India’s response indicates an anxiety over shifting US policy on Afghanistan. Trump’s disengagement from Syria and reported move to withdraw around 7,000 soldiers from Afghanistan — reducing American presence by half — ostensibly to cut its losses in a 17-year-old unwinnable war is indicative of the rise of non-interventionism as a serious component of US foreign policy.

It is an idea that enjoys bipartisan and popular support. India’s problem is that its stake, commitment, engagement and investment in Afghanistan are incumbent on the security provided by US military presence. If Trump orders a hasty withdrawal of troops without any concrete developments on the talks front with Taliban, India is left with a vulnerability without any policy options to address it.

It is not inconceivable that American withdrawal will eventually increase Pakistan’s leverage over Afghanistan and its terrorist proxies will get a freer hand. This anxiety may have prompted India to underline its role in ensuring stability in Afghanistan. In a White House bereft of adults, however, it is anybody’s guess what America’s next move will be. One suspects even Trump has very little idea.

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Updated Date: Jan 04, 2019 17:41 PM

Updated: January 5, 2019 — 5:52 am
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