Trump undermines Indian efforts in Afghanistan, draws ire from a united Indian polity

Just days after signing a legislation to step up Indo-Pacific partnership and to enhance defence in the region, US president Donald Trump mocked Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, implying that India’s role in strengthening Afghanistan’s security is largely inadequate and futile.

Belittling India’s contributions in reconstruction efforts in nation, Trump’s remarks on Wednesday elicited sharp reaction from the Centre and the opposition, both of which reiterated India’s commitment to long-term developmental aid in Afghanistan. Trump’s remarks were described as “bizarre”, “incoherent” and “not well-thought out” by South Asian diplomats and experts, while the ministry of external affairs called them uncalled for.

Here’s what Trump said

During a live telecast of the first cabinet meeting of the year, Trump said that India had constructed only a library in the strife-torn country. “That’s like five hours of what we do,” he added, asking, “who’s using it?”  

During the meeting, Trump asked India, Russia, Pakistan and other neighbouring countries to take greater responsibility for Afghanistan’s security, while defending his agenda for the US to invest less overseas.

“Why isn’t Russia there? Why isn’t India there? Why isn’t Pakistan there?” Trump rhetorically asked to make the point that the US is fighting wars for others. “Why are we there? We are 6,000 miles away,” he said.

Trump later referred indirectly to Modi to illustrate his point about world leaders bragging about their contributions which are nowhere near the billions of dollars’ worth of aid packages the US was sending. “I get along very well with India and Prime Minister Modi but he’s constantly telling me he built a library in Afghanistan. That’s like … five hours of what we spend and he tells it and he’s very smart. And we’re supposed to say thank you for the library. I don’t know who’s using it in Afghanistan but … I don’t like being taken advantage of,” Trump said.

New Delhi’s response

Hours after his jibe at the Modi government for funding the library, India came up with an indignant reply backed by few facts and figures. The Centre summarily clarified that its developmental assistance has played a major role in transforming Afghanistan.

Sources spoke to media outlets and said that India has been carrying out a range of mega infrastructure projects and community development programmes in Afghanistan as per requirement of its people, and specific needs worked out with the Afghan government.

“Such assistance would go a long way in making the country economically empowered and stable,” government officials later told News18, but also made it clear that India would not send in troops to fight the Taliban. Indian officials have, however, reportedly taken informal part in a Russian summit to resume talks with Taliban representatives after 17 years.

BJP general secretary Ram Madhav tweeted, “May be Trump should know that while he is decrying every other help in Afghanistan, India has been building not only libraries, but roads, dams, schools and even parliament building. We are building lives, for which the Afghan people thank us, no matter what others do or don’t.”

Congress’s response

The Congress responded to what they perceived as a lukewarm response from the Centre, calling Trump out for his ignorance in strongly-worded criticism. Several leaders of the opposition warned the US President to “stop mocking Indian PM”. Taking to Twitter, Congress spokesperson Surjewala said that under former PM Manmohan Singh, India “helped build Afghan National Assembly”.

Congress leader Shashi Tharoor eloquently listed India’s contributions in the Asian country which has long since been noted as a hub for the most militant terrorist organisations. In a series of tweets, the Kerala MP said, “The derisive comment by @realDonaldTrump on India building a library in Afghanistan is a stinging indictment of the BJP govt’s failure to convince the US of our bonafide credentials in Afghanistan. We’ve spent $3 billion (our largest aid programme anywhere) but the US doesn’t know. We brought 24/7 electricity to Kabul, built the Zaranj-Delaram Highway, restored schools & hospitals, built the Selma Dam & the National Parliament. And Modi tells Trump about a library? What a travesty & injustice. We should be proud of our role in Afghanistan&teach US abt it.”

Other notable contributions in Afghanistan

Infrastructure projects sponsored by India on Afghan soil include the 218 km road from Zaranj to Delaram for trade with Iran, the 220 kV DC transmission line from Pul-e-Khumri to Kabul that provides a key element of security for Afghan and US troops, and the 42 MW India-Afghanistan Friendship Dam or Salma Dam.  

India has also been supplying military equipment to Afghanistan besides providing training to hundreds of Afghan security personnel.

Besides these existing and ongoing reconstruction efforts, India will implement 116 new “High Impact Community Development Projects” in 31 provinces of Afghanistan, in areas including areas of education, health, agriculture, irrigation, drinking water, renewable energy, flood control, micro-hydropower, sports infrastructure, administrative infrastructure.

Another highly placed official told the media, “India seeks to build capacities and capabilities of Afghan nationals and its institutions for governance and delivery of public service, develop socio-economic infrastructure, secure lives and promote livelihood.”

Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius

AfghanistanDonald TrumpIndo-USNarendra Modi