Donald Trump mocks Narendra Modi. The news has stirred up a flurry of questions and an avalanche of reactions.
What did the US President really say and why did he say it? What happened to the famous bromance between the two leaders? Will it affect India-US ties? Is there more to it than meets the eye or is it just a passing remark intended as a joke?
First, here is what Trump said. He was addressing reporters in the White House during a 90 minute question-and-answer interaction at the beginning of the New Year.
While talking in the context of his plan to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan in a phased manner, the US President said: “Modi constantly tells me he built a library in Afghanistan. You know what that is? That's like five hours of the time we spend. And we're supposed to say, 'Oh, thank you for the library.' I don't know who's using it in Afghanistan".
Nobody has quite figured out what Trump was trying to say. Was he hitting out at India for not doing enough in Afghanistan? Or was he expressing irritation at Modi’s annoying habit of bragging about himself?
Nothing can be more frustrating for the United States. America desperately wants to extricate itself from a war it entered in 2001. But there is no way out - even though the US has realised that its original motives for launching what it called ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’ have become unachievable and largely irrelevant
Whether it was a statement with geo-strategic implications or just a personal dig at the Indian Prime Minister whose idea of foreign policy is to impress global leaders with passionate bear hugs and an over-dose of trumpet-blowing is not clear.
What it does indicate is that despite all the hype around his foreign tours, Narendra Modi’s style of intimate diplomacy on the world stage has not cut as much ice as his spin doctors would like Indians to believe.
The fact that Trump specifically referred to the Prime Minister “constantly” talking about a library for “five hours”, shows that Modi needs to drastically improve his conversational skills, with special emphasis on avoiding sounding like he is fishing for compliments.
Personal level peculiarities apart, there are some very grave implications of the US President’s remarks. Many geo-strategic analysts are viewing it as Washington’s growing frustration with the situation in Afghanistan where US troops have been engaged for far too long in the fight against Taliban. Trump himself, and even Obama before him, have been under pressure to scale down US military presence in the war-torn country but have been unable to do so because of what they see as lack of full cooperation from Pakistan and India.
Ideally, the American government would like to pass on the responsibility of tackling the Taliban to the regional powers. As a frontline State, Pakistan is seen as a necessary ally in the so-called War against Terror, but Washington is well aware that Islamabad cannot be trusted fully – not only because the Pak military has too many fish to fry in the region but also because of China’s strong influence.
On the other hand, India is regarded as the better choice to be handed over the task of attempting to curb terrorism and maintain peace in the mountainous landlocked country. But successive Indian governments have resolutely refused to get militarily involved in Kabul and Kandahar, despite the deep empathy and centuries-old abiding friendship between the people of Afghanistan and India.
India has always shown great enthusiasm and genuine desire to play a big role in Afghanistan’s economic development and provided support for social, educational and cultural projects and programmes. But when it comes to soldiers and guns, New Delhi has shied away except in terms of providing military training and supplies.
Nothing can be more frustrating for the United States. America desperately wants to extricate itself from a war it entered in 2001. But there is no way out - even though the US has realised that its original motives for launching what it called ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’ have become unachievable and largely irrelevant.
Handing over the baton to Pakistan is not feasible - the country is impoverished and Pakistan’s rulers have proved utterly unreliable. India is refusing to be pressurized.
To add fuel to Washington’s fury, India’s present Prime Minister, supposedly a strong leader heading a stable government which the United States has elevated to the level of a strategic partner, constantly talks about building libraries in Kabul.
From Trump’s perspective, Afghanistan needs weapons of war to be used against the Taliban forces which are capturing more territory with each passing day. Schools and hospitals and roads can be – and are - instantly destroyed in terror attacks within a day. America needs Indian soldiers to confront the Taliban and to die valiantly in the face of sniper bullets and suicide attacks. The body bags airlifted out of Kabul should not contain American GIs but Indian jawans.