In a way, there is no other major world leader than India’s Narendra Modi who can fit the bill of President Trump’s bestie.
Both came to power riding the waves of right-leaning populism. They employ rhetoric to enliven their core supporters. Furthermore, they keep close tabs on their Twitter followership.
Despite all the reasons for them to stay close, it seems as if the two leaders are gradually drifting apart. And it might be of Trump’s own making, which, in fact, does more harm than good to the American president.
One of the reasons why Trump would need Modi — as a matter of fact, any Indian prime minister — by his side is Afghanistan. Should the United States want to wrap-up its longest war in its history, it would require cooperation from regional powers. India is chief of them. After all, India wants to see a stable and peaceful Afghanistan; whereas other players, such as Pakistan and Iran, see volatility in Afghanistan as an opportunity to stay relevant to Washington. Therefore, Indian contribution to Afghanistan — even if it is a library — should not be belittled.
By now, most world leaders are aware that Trump conducts diplomacy on the basis of a cost-benefit analysis. Mutual benefits are mostly anathema to him. Hence, it would be unrealistic for Modi to expect a public commendation from Trump for all the good works that his country has been doing in Afghanistan. Whether it is India’s assistance in improving the war-torn country’s defense or investment in building infrastructures, Trump would hardly find any benefits in them until India foots some portion of the bill of American war efforts.
And this is exactly where the two leaders do not see eye to eye.
Trump believes that local actors should take more responsibilities because stability in Afghanistan would ensure regional peace and prosperity, which means a desirable outcome for all. Moreover, Americans have sizable resources, whether it is money or lives.
The war in Afghanistan now costs the U.S. taxpayers some $45 billion annually, which used to be a few times higher at the peak of the war. As many as 2,400 Americans have died, including Major Brent Taylor, a friend of mine from the University of Utah. Because the war has no end in sight, the American people are understandably apathetic to bear the brunt of financing it, which, in turn, puts Trump in a difficult position because one of his chief electoral promises was to withdraw from Afghanistan.
In contrast, New Delhi believes that the onus is on Washington to rebuild Afghanistan that is still in the middle of an American war. Therefore, India walks a fine line so that it does not get entangled in Afghanistan. Indeed, it is India’s cautious diplomacy that helps it avoid being seen chummy with a certain faction at the expense of the other — something that Pakistan does. India, therefore, provides selective assistance to Afghanistan so that no groups would take exception to Indian involvement in their country. For instance, India offers duty-free access for few Afghan exports and scholarships and training programs to meritorious students and officials. It is also slowly increasing investments and connectivity with Afghanistan.
India’s approach to Afghanistan is premised on soft power. India wants to win the hearts of the Afghan people, who are both wary of foreign powers and weary of war, by capitalizing on the two countries’ shared culture and history. And it seems to be working for India.
The South Asian power enjoys a certain level of acceptance from Afghan leaderships, as evidenced by India’s participation to Russian-backed peace talks with the Taliban. While India has consistently refused to engage with the Taliban, it understands the ever-evolving political landscape in Afghanistan that the Taliban has managed to gain control of areas to such a level that its non-participation is likely to render a reconciliation effort pointless.
While India’s engagement with the Taliban is still at its nascent stage, it carries strategic values. For one, Taliban militants would refrain from hurting Indian interests in Afghanistan. And, two, the Afghan government will find a trusted partner at the negotiation table. In fact, achieving these goals underlie India’s Afghanistan policy. India cannot but embrace the Afghan government lest its rival Pakistan wield more influence over Kabul. While doing so, India is also careful enough not to incite the Taliban so that New Delhi does not need to fight a Taliban insurgency on its own.
In short, India’s end goal is no different from that of the United States. Both countries want to see a peaceful Afghanistan. But India prefers to achieve it in its own way, not as a deputy to the United States.
It is high time the Trump administration understood this and refrained from pressuring India to transform its role in Afghanistan. India would not revise its Afghan playbook to please Trump, as many Indian politicians pointed out in the wake of Trump’s latest criticism of Modi.
Therefore, Trump should recalibrate his expectation as to the level of India’s involvement in the reconstruction of Afghanistan. Needless to say, he should not readily brush off Modi’s self-laudatory paeans. For a president so accustomed to being on the receiving end of praise, it is a sufficiently difficult task. But for the sake of successful diplomacy, is it too much to ask?
Arafat Kabir is a graduate student of political science at the University of Utah. He writes about South Asian politics, defense, and business with a special focus on Bangladesh. He is a contributor to Forbes Asia. His articles have also published in media outlets, including The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Diplomat, and The National Interest. He can be reached on Twitter at @ArafatKabirUpol. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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