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In PM Modi-Trump call, India gets all-good signal on Afghanistan

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Donald Trump discussed how to “increase” cooperation in Afghanistan in a phone call Monday in the backdrop of reports the United States was planning to drawdown its forces there and that it wanted India and other regional players to play a large role militarily.

world Updated: Jan 08, 2019 11:51 IST
Yashwant Raj
Yashwant Raj
Hindustan Times, Washington
US President Donald Trump (R) greets Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during their joint news conference in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, US, June 26, 2017.
US President Donald Trump (R) greets Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during their joint news conference in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, US, June 26, 2017.(REUTERS file photo)
         

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Donald Trump discussed how to “increase” cooperation in Afghanistan in a phone call Monday in the backdrop of reports the United States was planning to drawdown its forces there and that it wanted India and other regional players to play a large role militarily.

The two leaders also “exchanged perspectives”, said a readout of the conversation from the White House, on how to reduce US trade deficit with India, a top priority for President Trump for the relationship now, acknowledged by both Indian and US officials, and expand cooperation in Indo-Pacific.

But most significantly for New Delhi, there were no indications in the call that the United States was either drawing down its troops presence — from 14,000 to 7,000 as reported widely earlier — or that it expected India to deploy troops in Afghanistan, contrary to a mutually agreed position.

“President Trump received a call today from Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India on the occasion of the New Year,” said the White House readout of the call. “The leaders agreed to strengthen the US-India strategic partnership in 2019 and exchanged perspectives on how to reduce the US trade deficit with India, expand security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific, and increase cooperation in Afghanistan.”

The ministry of external affairs in New Delhi said in a separate press statement that the two leaders “expressed satisfaction at the progress in India-US strategic partnership in 2018. They appreciated developments such as the launch of the new 2+2 Dialogue mechanism and the first-ever Trilateral Summit of India, the US and Japan.

Also read | PM Narendra Modi discusses trade deficit, Afghanistan with US president Donald Trump over phone

“The two leaders took positive note of growing bilateral cooperation in defence, counter-terrorism and energy and coordination on regional and global issues. They agreed to continue to work together for further strengthening India-U.S. bilateral relations in 2019.”

The Indian statement did not mention Afghanistan directly. But New Delhi had been concerned lately about a slew of comments and remarks from the US president, on record, and his officials, off the record, over Afghanistan. Unidentified officials were reported widely in US media as suggesting President Trump had decided to reduce US troops stationed in Afghanistan by half.

Just days after, a US National Security Council spokesperson Garett Marquis told Bloomberg that the president had not made a determination yet. Defense department officials have said they have not received orders drawing down or exiting Afghanistan and congressional aides said they were waiting for clarity as well, despite many requests.

Soon after the reports of Afghanistan drawdown, the president belittled Indian contribution in Afghanistan, worth an estimated $3 billion and more in intangibles, by misleadingly, and mistakingly perhaps, reducing it to the construction of a library — which may have been a reference to the $90-million Afghan parliament built with Indian help.

President Trump had gone on, in remarks before a cabinet meeting, the first hour of which was aired live, to ask, rhetorically, why India, Russia and Pakistan, regional players, were not there in Afghanistan militarily, he seemed to have indicated without saying so explicitly.

New Delhi was both irritated by the US president’s “bizarre” outburst and disparaging remarks about its efforts in Afghanistan and confused about the his complaint that India was not doing more. He appeared to have been suggesting that India should contribute troops to the war effort..

Equally importantly if not more, India was stunned by the reported decision of US drawdown in Afghanistan, as were US allies, including its partners in the international coalition in Afghanistan such as the United Kingdom and Germany, as also were lawmakers, experts, supporters and allies at home still trying to come to make sense of the president’s controversial decision to bring back troops from Syria, which had led to the resignation of then defense secretary James Mattis.

Though prepared for the US pulling out of Afghanistan “eventually”, New Delhi wants the US to stay there as long as possible,, as an insurance against Pakistan interference in the affairs of long-time friendly nation.

Also read | Opinion: Donald Trump’s long shutdown could destabilise the world

First Published: Jan 08, 2019 11:45 IST

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