‘Why isn’t India there’: Trump signals military presence in Afghanistan
US president Donald Trump belittled India’s contributions to the reconstruction of Afghanistan during a live telecast of the opening hour of his cabinet’s meeting on Wednesday and indicated, without saying so explicitly, that India should send troops there, contrary to his administration’s South Asia Strategy.
“Why isn’t Russia there? Why isn’t India there? Why isn’t Pakistan there (in Afghanistan),” the president asked rhetorically to make a larger point that the US is fighting wars for others. “Why are we there? We are six 6,000 miles away,” he added, in remarks that were described as “bizarre”, “incoherent” and “not well-thought-out” by multiple South Asian diplomats and experts.
The United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001 to avenge the September 11 terrorist attacks that year on multiple targets in America, chiefly New York city, the president’s hometown, and hunt down al Qaeda, harboured by the Taliban regime, that had carried out them out. It has stayed there since, fighting the longest war in its history, now into its 18th year.
Trump’s remarks that India should be there in Afghanistan fighting that war instead, along with other neighbours, would, if it is the policy indeed, marked a significant departure from his administration’s stated policy for Afghanistan envisioned in the South Asia Strategy unveiled in 2017, his first year in office.
“We appreciate India’s important contributions to stability in Afghanistan, but India makes billions of dollars in trade with the United States, and we want them to help us more with Afghanistan, especially in the area of economic assistance and development,” Trump had said at the unveiling.
India was expected to play a larger role, according to that policy, greeted with general cheer and welcome in New Delhi, but in the reconstruction effort and not in any security or military-related effort, and definitely not by putting its soldiers on the ground in what was bound to have been a complicated ask, then as now. There wasn’t even a suggestion of it then.
There had been no response from the White House until the filing of this report to a request for clarification if the president’s remarks reflected a change in the administration’s policy regarding India and Afghanistan and if New Delhi was expected to contribute troops to the war effort, and if it was, had it been discussed with India.
Indians were not aware of any such changes, developments.
India has spent upwards of $5 billion towards the reconstruction of Afghanistan, a traditional and long-time regional ally, since 2001, rebuilding schools, manning hospitals, beefing up transportation networks and helping its central bank stabilise a war-torn economy and runaway currency.
But Trump, evidently, doesn’t understand or care.
“I get along very well with India and Prime Minister (Narendra) Modi,” Trump said, segueing into a broader narrative about his position on letting other countries pay for their wars and security, in response to an unrelated question — he does that routinely.
“But he is constantly telling me he built a library in Afghanistan.” “Okay, a library,” he riffed, for effect, at cameras trained on him.
“That’s like — you know what that is — that’s like five hours of what we spend,” the president said pinching his fore-finger and the thumb to illustrate his point — that India was not doing a lot, in comparison.
“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 helmed for years.
Trump has repeatedly expressed a close relationship with Prime Minister Modi but has also cited him in a negative fashion to make a larger point about his America First vision. And he has done this with other world leaders he has said he admires and is friends with, such as China’s Xi Jinping and Japan’s Shinzo Abe.
“Great relationship with Prime Minister Modi, a great man, and he has done a fantastic job, he brought the country together,” Trump said before moving over to a different issue.
But in a particularly offensive put down for a people, a whole nation, the US president said later, his expressions and gestures suggesting mock wonderment in support, “I don’t know who is using it (the library) in Afghanistan.”
Indians with deep and long experience of working in Afghanistan were wondering, however, about the library the US president was referring to.
“None that I am aware of,” said an Indian diplomat with long years of experience working in Afghanistan, spanning all corners of the country.
India built the Afghan parliament, rebuilt former president Hamid Karzai’s bullet-riddled and bombed school in Kabul and salvaged many other structures and constructed and refurbished dams and power generation over the years, as it also quietly supported families of threatened officials living abroad.
The US president’s remarks sparked other criticisms as well. For one, a western diplomat pointed out, Trump had “actually justified Soviet invasion of Afghanistan” when he said the then Soviet Union entered Afghanistan in search of terrorists and stayed and got bankrupted, turned back into Russia.
Unbeknownst to Trump, or conveniently overlooked by him, the US spent billions evicting the Russians, using Pakistan as a conduit for arms and money to the rebels, a mix of local fighters and those that had arrived from around the world, such as Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda.
And the other problem.
“He actually wants Pakistan back in there, in the fighting?” asked an intelligence official, rhetorically incredulous. “They are already there — as they have been for years, fighting the war on behalf of the Taliban, who the president described as the enemy in this remarks.”
“Does he even know what’s happening there?”