Trumping Modi-mock

US-Afpak India

By Dr D K Giri
(Prof. International Politics, JMI)

The President of United States Donald Trump’s ‘mocking’ remarks on Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s mention of India’s contribution to building a library in Afghanistan has provoked retorts in India, Afghanistan and even America. The reactions were expected, as a head of a State, in this case, the biggest player in tragic Afghanistan episode, makes some uncharitable, undiplomatic comments on the head of government of another country. Independent, sovereign, self-respecting countries will react to such jibes; a vassal State may not.
I am not surprised and not much concerned at least for two reasons: one, Donald Trump is known for making abrupt and uncalled for remarks in public; his supporters call it straight talk, calling a-spade-a-spade, but critics rile him for such diplomatic gaffes. Take for instance, the reaction of Michael Kugelman at the Wilson Centre in Washington, “Trump’s mocking comments about New Delhi are tone-deaf at best and deeply insulting to a key US partner at worst.”
The critics add Trump tries to make commercial sense of “strategic investment” and down plays the soft power of the foreign policy. Foreign affairs for him are more deals and dollars than astute diplomacy. Be these criticisms as they may, Trump’s occasional remarks are not in alignment with his own government’s policies. This brings me to the second reason for not being over reactive to Trump’s remark.
If we scan through US policy towards Afghanistan formulated in 2017, we would detect his government’s helpful and friendly intensions on India. Before we reflect on the remark and the reactions, it may be in order that we recall Trump’s Afghanistan policy. Importantly, his policy towards Afghanistan was a radical departure from the previous government. His predecessor Obama equated Pakistan and India vis-a-vis his policy in South Asia. Obama Administration ladled out billions of dollars to Pakistan, even sanctioned the transfer of F-16s but for the objection by American Congress and ignored India’s role in Afghanistan.
In contrast, Donald Trump’s policy had a paradigm shift, as suggested by Husain Haqqani, Pakistan Former Ambassador to US. Trump’s approach converted their Af-Pak policy to Af-Pak-India. Second, it held out Pakistan as the enemy, providing safe haven to terrorists ‘the agents of chaos, violence and terror’ doing precious little to check terrorists in Afghanistan operating out of Pakistan soil, despite billions of dollars from US to do so. Third, it sought ‘greater Indian involvement in Afghanistan’, a nightmarish prospect for Pakistan.
Fourth, America’s strategic partnership with India will deepen in South-Asia and India-Pacific, through their joint involvement in Afghanistan. Remember, it is Trump Administration that changed the nomenclature of the region from Asia-Pacific to Indo-Pacific, lending greater geo-political importance to India. Fifth, the policy acknowledged India’s role in stabilising Afghanistan with economic assistance, and development projects, but wants India to do more. It is this point of US nudging India to do more that has perhaps prompted Trump to make that remark, although it was made sardonically, and undiplomatically that left a bad taste in the mouth.
What did he say? Trump said, “The Indian leader Narendra Modi has been frequently telling me about the library he built in Afghanistan, you know what that is! That is like 5 hours of what we spend.” He added, “and we are supposed to say, thank you for the library. I do not know who is using it in Afghanistan”. Join the dots here. In another context, he said, “what are we doing 6000 miles away in Afghanistan? It is Russia, China and India, who should fight Taliban, not us”. So what Trump was implying here, India should fight Taliban, instead of showing off on their support to the library etc.
Not much unexpectedly, leaders in Kabul and New Delhi have reacted to his statement. Afghanistan leaders have gratefully acknowledged India’s support, “India has started many projects out of goodwill, these development projects are very important for our country in the long run.” The Afghan President’s office said, “India is contributing in development projects like health, roads and education”. Afghans believe these projects give more benefits and provide material basis to have peace and stability in the long run.
Predictably, Indian reactions came out of a sovereign, “non-aligned” country defending its self-respect and independent position in its foreign policy. Even the Congress leaders in opposition to NaMo said “US need not teach India how it should conduct its foreign affairs.” Indian media and foreign policy observers reacted by defining our approach to Afghan policy and reeling out figures on our development assistance. India is fighting terrorism in Afghanistan by eliminating poverty. India plays a significant role as a development partner in Afghanistan with projects aimed at achieving a tangible improvement in the lives of the people. India is not a free rider, a significant donor, in fact, the biggest South Asian donor to Afghanistan. It has contributed US$3 billion with infrastructure projects, humanitarian assistance and economic development, even the projects on irrigation, training, construction of the parliament building, scholarship to 1000 Afghan students, about 116 High Impact community development projects in 31 provinces of Afghanistan and so on.
Interestingly, what was not highlighted in India’s reactions was the huge difference of approach in US and India’s foreign policies in world politics in general and towards Afghanistan in particular. Both US and India know the power asymmetry between them; one is a super power and the other a developing country, an emerging power. Both have their respective trajectories and determinants in foreign policy. US thrives politically and even grows in economic strength by playing its world power role, some call it international police man. For instance, US plunged into Iraq war to protect their oil interest, even bypassing the United Nations. There is no international hotspot where US is not engaged.
In stark contrast, India has been ‘non-aligned’ for much its independent policy since 1947. Whether it was a right approach for India, is a subject of another debate. India does not get involved bilaterally in any conflict unless it is under the UN mandate, or it is invited to do so like it does in its neighbourhood – Sri Lanka, Maldives, Bhutan and Bangladesh and so on. So, to expect New Delhi to militarily jump head on into Afghanistan imbroglio is a figment of Trump’s imagination.
On Afghanistan, India supports an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned, and Afghan-controlled peace and reconciliation process. So, it has to be a part of US-India-Afghan joint strategy for India to send its troops. Therefore, in sum, as Kugelman said, “India would need to shrug off incidents like these in service of a partnership that both Washington and New Delhi are keen to deepen”. One should not find it hard to agree with him.—INFA