New Delhi: US President Donald Trump hasn’t changed his mind about India not doing enough in Afghanistan over the past year and a half.
In 2016, he had said that India needed to do more in Afghanistan, to offset the trade surplus with the US. This time, he has cited the small size of a non-existent Indian project – a library – to make his point that US allies don’t pull in their weight.
Trump’s latest remarks were made to the press following the year’s first cabinet meeting in the White House on Wednesday. Trump has been under pressure over the ongoing partial shutdown of the government, as he has remained adamant that Congress provide him funds to build a border wall with Mexico.
Speaking to the press at a cabinet meeting in White House, Trump got off on his familiar talking points and called on Democrats to cut a deal for a border wall.
He claimed that the Democrats were not willing to give him $5 billion for the wall, but were ready to siphon off $54 billion as foreign aid. This was the trigger for Trump to go on oft-used remarks that the US is always taken advantage of by its allies, citing Afghanistan as an example.
“We give money to Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador and they don’t do anything for us,” he said.
Not many people know that he ended annual aid of $1.3 billion to Pakistan, Trump claimed. “They house the enemy, they take care of the enemy… We can’t just allow that,” he said, likely referring to safe havens for the Taliban in Pakistani territory.
But, his biggest peeve was reserved for “massively rich countries” with small defence budgets since “we are subsidising them”.
Trump asserted that his allies were not contributing enough towards conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Asserting that US was being taken advantage by countries offering a token contribution, Trump then dwelled on Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi having allegedly told him about India building a “library” in Afghanistan.
He took a swipe, talking about how Modi had expected him to say, “Oh, thank you for the library”, even though the cost was just a “negligible fraction of American aid”.
I’ve heard past presidents say they’ve involved in the Afghanistan war because they sent us a hundred soldiers. Yet it’s costing us billions of billions of dollars. I get along with India and the prime minister and he’s constantly telling me he built a library in Afghanistan. You know what that is? That’s like five hours of what we spend. And he tells it is and he’s very smart and we’re supposed to say oh, thank you for the library. I don’t know who’s using it in Afghanistan but one of those things.
It is not clear why Trump would claim that Modi told him that India has built a library in Afghanistan – since there is no such project.
Neither did Trump mention when Modi spoke to him about Afghanistan. Their last face-to-face meeting was at a trilateral meeting with Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe on the sidelines of the G20 summit last month. Their last bilateral conversation was even older – a phone call in February 2018.
Since 2001, India’s total bilateral assistance to Afghanistan amounts to about $2 billion. The major projects, which India has cited publicly, are construction of Afghan parliament building, restoration of Stor palace, hydropower dam, roads, transmission and capacity building programs.
Till now, no diplomatic document or public statements from any Indian official have listed a “library” among projects in Afghanistan.
In 2017, India announced an additional assistance of $1 billion, which will be used for new projects like Shahtoot dam, water supply projects, road connectivity and also smaller community development projects.
Trump’s swipe at India over Afghanistan was a reminder of his previous jab during his August 2017 speech when was announcing an increase in US troop levels in the war-ravaged country.
“We appreciate India’s important contributions to stability in Afghanistan. But India makes billions of dollars in trade from the United States and we want them to help us more with Afghanistan, especially in the area of economic assistance and development,” he had said.
On Thursday, Trump did not clarify the nature of increased contribution expected from India.
To a question on whether he wanted India to do more security-related cooperation, Trump did not give a direct answer. “We are going to be doing something that is right. We are talking to the Taliban. We are talking to a lot of different people,” he said.
“But here’s the thing, because you mentioned India. India is there. Russia is there. Russia used to be Soviet Union. Afghanistan made it Russia, because they went bankrupt fighting in Afghanistan. Russia. So you tend to look at other countries. Pakistan is there. They should be fighting. But Russia should be fighting”.
In New Delhi, official sources reiterated that India would not consider putting boots on the grounds in Afghanistan.
“India firmly believes in the critical role that developmental assistance can play in transforming human lives. India does not send its armed forces abroad except under the specific mandate of UN Peacekeeping Operations,” they said.
Sources also pointed out that it was United States that had earlier constrained Indian military assistance to Afghanistan, in deference to Pakistani sensitivities.
There was no official statement from the Indian government, but the ministry of external affairs republished an older e-book that showcased bilateral assistance to Afghanistan.
Afghan national security advisor Hamdullahh Mohib arrived in Delhi on Thursday evening for a scheduled visit to discuss relations with his counterparts. Next week, US’s special envoy for Afghan talks, Zalmay Khalizad would be in India for the first time since his appointment in early September.
India has not been directly involved in the recent accelerated developments as United States, Pakistan and Russia are actively pursuing contacts with Taliban to resume the peace process. Supporting Kabul’s line, New Delhi wants direct talks between Taliban and the Afghan governments, which has so far been rejected by the terror group.
India was taken by surprise when Trump announced that 7,000 americans troops would be withdrawn from Afghanistan. Indian sources acknowledged that it would be tough to fill the gap from withdrawal of such a large number by Afghan security forces. However, they were taking comfort that no timetable had been announced, which could indicate that the withdrawal would be in a phase manner.
Trump also claimed on Wednesday to have “essentially” fired Mattis for not improving the situation in Afghanistan. Following announcements of troop withdrawal from Syria and Afghanistan, Mattis had resigned with a letter which indicated that he had serious difference of views with the US President on relations with allies.
“What’s he done for me? How has he done in Afghanistan? Not too good. Not too good. I’m not happy with what he’s done in Afghanistan and I shouldn’t be happy,” Trump said.
While Trump’s remarks about India were striking, the main headlines from the cabinet meeting in US media was his seeming endorsement for the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.
“The reason Russia was in Afghanistan was because terrorists were going into Russia. They were right to be there,” he said.
The Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan in December 1979 to support the communist government in Kabul. It left after nine years, exhausted by a guerrilla war staged by Afghan mujahideen supported and supplied by United States.
No, we didn’t send terrorists to USSR in 79. USSR invaded us. US funded ISI to give them a bloody nose. Then ISI helped terrorists to attack US. Then US invaded us to kill them. Now, Russia is in bed with ISI to give US a bloody nose. We’re caught in the middle. End of story.
— Waheed Omer (@Waheed_Omer) January 3, 2019
The Afghan government on Thursday called on Untied States to clarify Trump’s remarks supporting the Soviet invasion.
“There is a difference between official statements and the official policy of the country. For that reason, we have asked the United States to provide clarification regarding some statements, through diplomatic channels about certain policies, and we hope this will be shared with us in the near future,” said a statement issued by the Afghan Presidential Palace.