Trump likely mistook ‘parliament’ for ‘library’ in his India put-down on Afghanistan aid

Updated on Jan 05, 2019 11:53 AM IST
Indian officials have been in a google-it mode since, trying to figure out the “library’ President Trump has accused PM Modi of boasting about to him as evidence of Indian interest and commitment to the reconstruction of Afghanistan, a long time ally.
U.S. President Donald Trump with a bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi alongside the ASEAN Summit in Manila, Philippines November 13, 2017. (File Photo)(REUTERS)
U.S. President Donald Trump with a bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi alongside the ASEAN Summit in Manila, Philippines November 13, 2017. (File Photo)(REUTERS)
Hindustan Times, Washington | ByYashwant Raj

Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke to US president Donald Trump about the Parliament building India built in Kabul, considered a crowning achievement of India’s reconstruction efforts in war-torn Afghanistan, during their June 2017 meeting in the White House, according to people present.

But officials have not found the “library” that Trump cited to belittle India’s reconstruction efforts earlier this week, angering India, and also confusing it. Officials tried hard to find that library the US president was referring, and even the most experienced of India’s Afghan hands couldn’t recall one.

Of all of India’s many reconstruction projects and works undertaken in Afghanistan, starting within days of the fall of the Taliban government in November 2001, India has been very proud of the parliament house it built for the country, as part of it’s reconstruction effort worth and estimated $3 to 5 billion.

“The prime minister spoke to President Trump about the parliament building during their discussion on Afghanistan at the White House meeting,” said a person who was present at the June 26 meeting in the White House but did not want to be identified so as to be able speak freely about a conversation that was supposed to have stayed confidential until Trump went public with it, and got it “all wrong”.

Taking questions from reporters before a meeting of his cabinet, the first of the year, telecast live, the US president said , ‘“I get along very well with India and Prime Minister (Narendra) Modi . But he is constantly telling me he built a library in Afghanistan.”

The American leader was trying to make a point that US investments in Afghanistan — in personnel, materiel and money terms — were unmatched by that of allies and partners, a notion that was questioned and criticized from the moment it was mooted.

“Okay, a library,” he riffed, for effect, cameras trained on him.

“That’s like — you now what that is it — that’s like 5 hours of what we spend,” the president said pinching his fore-finger and thumb to illustrate his point — that India was not doing a lot.

“And we are supposed to say oh, thank you for the library,” the president said, sarcasm intended, knowing he was on air, live and recording, which would be watched in New Delhi. He knows the medium better than most world leaders having found celebrity and recognition through a TV reality show he had helmed.

Indian officials have been in a google-it mode since, trying to figure out the “library’ Trump has accused Modi of boasting about to him as evidence of Indian interest and commitment to the reconstruction of Afghanistan, a long time ally.

India has not built a library in Afghanistan, according to officials who have served long stints there. And they went back to their books from the time to make sure they did not miss it — “you know, small operations that may have missed proper accounting if done in collaboration with private sector entities”. But no, nothing came up.

After all the searches and deep dives, India appears to be confident President Tump mistook Prime Minister Modi’s pitch about the parliament building for the “library” which he had cited to belittle both India, as the facilitator for such an insignificant contribution in his view, and Afghanistan, the recipient, for having no use of it.

The parliament house, on the outskirts of Kabul, was built by an Indian private company under the oversight of the Public Works Department (PWD) of India for an estimated $90 million. The foundation stone was laid in 2005 by then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

Prime Minister Modi and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani inaugurated it jointly the building 8 years after, in 2015, and New Delhi has since considered it as a crowning achievement of its efforts there, that have included highways, power projects, hospitals, transportation and support for the country’s financial systems.

“This Parliament Complex is a small tribute to your progress as a nation and a democracy,” Prime Minister Modi had said in his speech inaugurating the building. “And, it will stand as an enduring symbol of the ties of emotions and values, of affection and aspirations that bind us in a special relationship.”

A section of the complex is named “Atal Block” after Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee who is understood to have mooted the project along with then President Karzai.

Official who have been present at Modi’s meetings with Trump insisted they never heard the prime minister speak as proudly and excitedly to the US president about any other Afghan projects — “though there was plenty else to talk about” — and were taken by Trump’s reference to a “library”.

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