Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be meeting with US President Donald Trump later this month in the shadow of the latter's aborted secret meeting with the Afghan Taliban at Camp David. The US has also confirmed the president's attendance at the 'Howdy Modi!' Indian diaspora event in Houston, Texas, on September 22, which Prime Minister Modi will be addressing. Even while the South Block mandarins will be watching for the Modi-Trump chemistry to bloom further they will struggle to place this 'frenemy' in the White House on the diplomatic table of reliability.
Trump shocked the world last week by tweeting a decision to scrap an 'unbeknownst-to-most' meeting with the Taliban on US soil and suspend the Doha talks. Reports had emerged a few days back that Washington's interlocutors and the Taliban were on the verge of a deal that could end the US occupation of the South Asian nation. The Trump tweet on tearing up the invitation for a meeting with the Taliban just two days away claimed the Taliban's audacity in owning up a blast in Kabul that killed an American soldier apart from several Afghan citizens was the proverbial straw on the camel's back.
As the world's response to the developments began pouring in, the mandarins of the South Block in New Delhi were grappling with a gargantuan dilemma. They were struggling to decide whether the breakdown of the US-Taliban talks was good for India or not. The opinion was understandably divided because nobody knew what the deal behind the deal was. Though some US officials were in India before the last round of the Doha talks to brief Indians of the contours of the likely roadmap, there was no certainty whether the path was indeed being followed, considering the secrecy shrouding the talks. The scrapped secret meet tweet only added to the confusion.
The mention in the Trump tweet of the proposed meeting on US territory had a surreal air to it. The meeting, as well as the purported deal, had come too soon for a rational process to have produced them. Yet, as we live in irrational times irrational events can be the norm. Though a report of the meeting did come as a surprise, a meeting between Trump and the Taliban leaders would have been fun, each side being as garrulous and irritable as the other.
Modi, whose followers claim the existence of a 'special bond' between the Indian and US leaders, would still be wondering what could have been the substance of the deal. The meeting was to take place just days ahead of the anniversary of September 11, 2001, Al Qaeda attack on the US soil bringing down the twin towers of World Trade Center in a spectacular attack using hijacked planes. The passenger planes that smashed into the pride of US capitalism also triggered President George Bush's War on Terror that led to the bombing of Afghanistan after the Taliban the regime refused to hand over Al Qaeda leaders including Osama bin Laden.
Unbeknownst to almost everyone, the major Taliban leaders and, separately, the President of Afghanistan, were going to secretly meet with me at Camp David on Sunday. They were coming to the United States tonight. Unfortunately, in order to build false leverage, they admitted to..— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 7, 2019
The New York Times wrote the decision for the tête-à-tête was taken at a meeting that Trump convened in the Oval Office with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo supporting the idea for achieving President Trump's avowed objective of bringing home all troops stationed abroad. However, the eternal hawk in National Security Advisor John Bolton, chiming in from Warsaw by the video link, was against the idea of getting in bed with the sworn enemy, that too so close to the impending anniversary of the attacks. And Bolton got the boot in his backside. However, Trump soon got the fig leaf of Taliban attack killing a US service personnel to withdraw from the meeting that would have been considered atrocious by his rivals so close to the 2020 presidential campaign launch.
India can only wait and watch to see how matters unfold from now. India-friendly Afghanistan President Abdul Ghani had been kept out of the Doha rounds. Pakistan apparently was happy the way the talks were going while India had no idea where the talks had gone from the position when the US officials initially briefed India.
India, of course, has a huge stake in Afghanistan, having invested heavily in its economy. India's investments amount to more than $1 billion apart from the money spent on Iran's Chabahar port intended to serve as an alternative to the trade route through Pakistan. Iran has the ambition of making Chabahar a counter to Pakistan's Chinese-built Gwadar port in Balochistan province. India also built the Chabahar-Kabul highway for easing trade with Afghanistan. India, like China, has extensive interests in the natural resources of Afghanistan, having invested in prospecting infrastructure.
Any premature US withdrawal from Afghanistan will be a body blow to Indian trade and strategic interests, considering the upper hand Pakistan has in Afghanistan through the extremist elements that infest the lawless mountains separating the two countries. Strategically, New Delhi was at risk of losing an ally in Kabul against Islamabad.
On the other hand, the US has always projected India as a strategic counterweight to Chinese expansionism in the Indian Ocean. Therefore, it must have been more open to Indian concerns in Afghanistan also. The apparent bonhomie between Trump and Modi aside, the Indian experience with the US has not been smooth on both strategic and trade fronts. India has been battling Trump's tariff swipes for some time now, the hallowed Harley Davidson being only one of the sore points. The Trump administration has not taken kindly to India's move to acquire the 400km range Russian S-400 Triumf air defense system for a whopping $5.43 billion. India has not demurred despite a US threat to slap the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) provisions on India.
New Delhi has also had to grapple with the recent flip-flops of Trump regarding the highly sensitive Kashmir issue. Soon after a meeting with Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan in Washington after Modi abrogated Article 370 of the Indian Constitution erasing the statehood of Jammu and Kashmir, Trump offered to mediate on the Kashmir issue on which the two countries had fought three wars. The Indian position has always been that Kashmir is a bilateral issue between India and its western neighbor. The US State Department hastened to correct Trump saying the US always thought the neighbors must resolve the issue through mutual dialogue.
For all the friendly gestures that Trump has extended to Modi, the Indian economy is likely to be hurt by his denial of sanctions waiver for Iran oil imports to India, unlike his predecessor. The cheaper Iranian oil would have allowed some cushion for India now that the oil prices are threatening to skyrocket after Saudi Arabia halved production following drone strikes by Yemeni Houthis on Aramco's oil installations triggering huge fires.
The Indian external affairs establishment is currently in the reset mode trying to rebalance its approach in the wake of the exit of Bolton. However, the drill is somewhat familiar, as it has done this several times since Trump came to power and set up the revolving door for top officials.