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Hamid Karzai Defends Trump's Dig About India's Role in Afghanistan

Karzai said the US president's words had been taken out of context and said Trump only voiced what all Afghans want: a larger role for India in the region.

New Delhi: While Indians had taken umbrage at US President Donald Trump’s dig at New Delhi not doing enough in Afghanistan, former president Hamid Karzai has defended him by saying that Trump was simply referring to what Afghans want: a larger role for India in the region.

Last week, Trump spoke about how he was peeved at the US being taken advantage of by its allies, who, he said, only made token contributions in overseas conflict zones.

The example, he cited, was of India. He claimed that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had told him that India had built a “library” in Afghanistan. Taking a swipe, Trump asked whether Modi expected him to say “Oh, thank you for the library”, even though the cost was just a “five hours of what we spend”.

Also read: In Jibe at ‘Friend’, Trump Belittles Indian Assistance to Afghanistan

At the Observer Research Foundation’s annual Raisina Dialogue in New Delhi on Thursday, Karzai said that the media had not been kind to US president.

“I think media did a lot of hype on that. President Trump did not mean exactly what was reported in press,” he said, in answer to a question from the audience.

Trump, he felt, was only stating what Afghans also desired.

“What he was alluding to was seeking India’s larger role in Afghanistan and support from India for Afghan efforts for the peace process and reconstruction. Which is exactly what Afghans want. Of course, he put it in other words. He could have used different words for that,” he asserted.

Earlier in the discussion, Karzai, who is considered one of India’s closest partners in Kabul, said that the two countries had a “romantic relationship”, which had led to “unrealistic” expectations.

“This romance realises expectations to an unrealistic level. We want India to do more in Afghanistan. We want India to do more, detached from any other country,” he said.

While there had been no official response to Trump’s remarks, Indian government officials were quick to point out that India’s development assistance to Afghanistan stands at around $3 billion. On the same day, the ministry of external affairs re-published an e-book on Indian development aid to Afghanistan.

Indian official sources pointed out that New Delhi believes that development assistance is critical “in transforming human lives”.

Also read: Afghanistan’s Neighbours Fear Refugee Crisis if US Withdraws Troops

Karzai said that his discussions with the Indian external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj focussed on the Indian role in Afghan peace process.

“We focussed on the peace process that ambassador (Zalmay) Khalilzad is leading on behalf of the United States…how to support Khalizad and how to express India’s concerns and how to modify things where we will reach peace and yet have a sovereign Afghanistan, independent and not and not under writ of Pakistan, but friendly, brotherly with Pakistan,” he said. US special representative to Afghan reconciliation, Khalilzad was also in the audience. The senior US audience will be meeting with Indian external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj and foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale on Friday.

Interestingly, earlier in the day, Indian army chief Bipin Rawat appeared to lobby for a change in India’s Afghan policy.

“A number of countries are talking to the Taliban. The issue we should address is – do we have an interest in Afghanistan? If the answer is yes, then you cannot be out of the bandwagon,” he said at the Indian army’s annual press conference.

Watch | Wide Angle: What Role Can Regional Powers Play in Afghanistan’s Security?

India has never recognised the Taliban and has kept a distance; even as other external players, like the US, Iran and Russia, have opened up direct channels. In fact, when a Taliban delegation took part in the meeting of the Moscow process, India sent two former Indian ambassadors rather than official representatives.

“Our thinking is that yes, we have an interests in Afghanistan. And if we have interests, and if other people are saying that there should be talks, we should also take part, maybe directly or indirectly. We cannot be left out,” said Rawat.

There was consternation among Indian government circles about Rawat’s assertion that India should talk to the Taliban. They point out that it was due to India’s interest to be part of the conversation that two “non-officials” had been sent to Moscow.

Sources said that there is no plan to change India’s long-standing policy and begin direct engagement with the Taliban.

During the conversation at Raisina Dialogue, Karzai also asserted that Americans will not completely leave Afghanistan. Last month, Trump had asserted that US troops would be soon leaving Afghanistan, but it was dialled back by his officials.

“I am among those who believe that US will not leave Afghanistan. They didn’t come to leave. So, they will stay in Afghanistan at least with the Bilateral Security Agreement as the basis. The conversations that Americans have with Taliban is on this basis too,” he said.

Karzai said that a peace process had to have four aspects. These include its intra-Afghan nature, foundation of peace for “all” Afghans and support from regional countries.

“Fourth, we differentiate between peace, and a deal between US and Pakistan on Afghanistan. But we do want a peace process in which Pakistan has an important role,” he added.