Why Trump is wrong in mocking India’s Modi on Afghanistan role

US President Donald Trump’s comments mocking New Delhi’s role in Afghanistan have drawn widespread ridicule and anger both in India and Afghanistan.

On Wednesday, Trump said he got along very well with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, but the Indian leader was “constantly telling me he built a library in Afghanistan”.

“That’s like five hours of what we spend… And we are supposed to say, ‘oh, thank you for the library’. I don’t know who is using it in Afghanistan,” Trump said.

He also said Russia, Pakistan and India should be intervening in Afghanistan, not the US. “Why are we there, 6,000 miles away?” he asked.

India’s aid to Afghanistan

India has been Afghanistan’s close ally and has committed $3bn to various development projects in the country, as well as financing its new parliament building.

New Delhi trains Afghan military officers in India but has refrained from sending its own soldiers to the war-torn country. India has repeatedly said it backs an “Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process”.

India’s strategic partnership agreement signed with Kabul in 2011 saw it donating light helicopters and vehicles, providing military training, building roads and financing a $300m hydroelectric dam project.

The country offers 1,000 scholarships each year to Afghan students, as well as specialised treatment of critically ill Afghans in Indian hospitals.

There is also a soft power side to India’s Afghan strategy; it offers Kabul the use of two of its stadiums to host cricket matches with other countries and has announced plans to build sporting facilities around Afghanistan.

Trump certainly views foreign policy through a commercial lens.

Analyst Michael Kugelman, Wilson Center

New Delhi’s engagement in Afghanistan is “characteristically different from that of any other country,” says Happymon Jacob, professor at the School of International Studies at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University.

“India is not driven by commercial or short-term strategic gains. Projects such as major road construction activities, construction of the Salma Dam and the new parliament building or investments in women’s education are aimed at achieving long-term peace and stability in the war-torn nation.

“The objective has been to cater to the needs of the Afghan people and earn their goodwill and India has achieved these aims,” Jacob tells Al Jazeera.

During a conference in Geneva in November last year, the Afghanistan government said India is supporting “116 new ‘High Impact Community Development Projects’ in 31 provinces of Afghanistan”.

‘Trump’s comments deeply insulting’

Trump’s comments riled up politicians and observers in both India and Afghanistan.

An unnamed Indian government spokesman told AFP news agency that New Delhi would like to highlight the “critical role that developmental assistance can play in transforming human lives”.

Dear Mr. Trump,

Stop mocking India’s PM

India dosn’t need sermons from the U.S on Afghanistan

Under Dr Manmohan Singh, India helped build Afghan National Assembly

Humanitarian needs to strategic economic partnership, we are one with our Afghani brothers & sisters pic.twitter.com/DlK9BM9XsZ

— Randeep Singh Surjewala (@rssurjewala) January 3, 2019

Michael Kugelman at the Wilson Center in Washington told Al Jazeera that “Trump’s mocking comments about New Delhi are tone-deaf at best and deeply insulting to a key US partner at worst”.

However, India was not the only country on Trump’s radar. He also went on a tirade against allies for not spending enough on overseas engagements while the US, he claimed, spends billions.

Analysts say Trump tries to make commercial sense of “strategic investments” and is trying to downplay the soft power of foreign policy.

“Trump certainly views foreign policy through a commercial lens. Foreign affairs, for him, are more about deals and dollars than about careful diplomacy,” Kugelman tells Al Jazeera.

“The problem with Trump’s tactic is that the very nations he tends to accuse of punching below their weight are in fact doing much more than he gives them credit for,” he said.

“India is no free rider in Afghanistan; it’s a top financial supporter, even in an era of donor fatigue.”

Afghans not happy with remarks either

Many Afghan citizens also ridiculed Trump’s comments, saying “India is fighting terrorism in Afghanistan by eliminating poverty and providing education to its youth”.

“US is thinking about their interests when they sent troops to our country and fought for the past 17 years,” Asad Khoramj, a Kabul resident told Al Jazeera.

“But India has started many welfare projects here out of goodwill. These development projects are very important for our country in the long run.”

On Friday, during his trip to India, Afghan National Security Adviser Hamdullah Mohib made comments appreciative of India’s role in the reconstruction of the war-ravaged country during his talks with his Indian counterpart, Ajit Doval.

Held productive meetings in India with my counterpart NSA Ajit Doval and other security officials on regional stability, the democratic progress and ongoing peace efforts in Afghanistan, and bilateral security cooperation. pic.twitter.com/KfuDi47GIo

— Hamdullah Mohib (@hmohib) January 4, 2019

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s adviser, Ziaulhaq Amarkhil, said Afghans see the positive contribution of India towards the country with “more respect and honour”.

“There is no doubt that every player has its own stakes in Afghanistan. But we have to see these stakes in different perspectives,” he said.

India is contributing in developmental projects like health, roads and education. These projects give more benefits and provide material basis to have peace and stability in the long run.”

The Indian embassy in Kabul claims India is the biggest South Asian donor to Afghanistan, spending around $2bn on reconstruction and rehabilitation. 

US, Trump on same page?

Analysts point out Trump may not be on the same page with the US administration on India’s role in Afghanistan.

“Even the American establishment understands the importance of investing in civilian infrastructure and primary education. So, I do not think Trump’s views reflect those of the American foreign policy even as the US has been pushing New Delhi to be militarily involved in Afghanistan,” said national security analyst Jacob in New Delhi.

But this is not the first time Trump has mocked the Indian prime minister. Earlier last year he rebuffed Modi’s import tariff cuts on Harley Davidson bikes.

The Washington Post previously reported senior White House officials saying Trump mimics Modi’s accent.

The Indian Foreign Ministry is yet to officially react to Trump’s latest comments, although most media outlets have published unnamed government sources criticising the US leader.

But analyst Kugelman says India would need to shrug off incidents like these “in service of a partnership that both Washington and Delhi are keen to deepen”.

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