ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
President Trump spoke of a regional approach to the conflict in Afghanistan last night, including a pledge to further develop the U.S. strategic partnership with India.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We appreciate India's important contributions to stability in Afghanistan. But India makes billions of dollars in trade with the United States, and we want them to help us more with Afghanistan, especially in the area of economic assistance and development.
SIEGEL: Talk about Pakistan's deep involvement in neighboring Afghanistan is common. The appeal to India - not so much. And joining us now is South Asia watcher Alyssa Ayres of the Council on Foreign Relations. Hiya.
ALYSSA AYRES: Hi, thanks for having me.
SIEGEL: Is this a new step in U.S.-Afghan policy to urge a greater role for India?
AYRES: Let me say this; India has been deeply involved in economic assistance and development efforts with Afghanistan for years. India is and has been the fifth-largest bilateral donor to Afghanistan. In the Obama administration, there was the creation of an India-U.S.-Afghanistan trilateral dialogue. So there has been a sense that India has been an important development partner for Afghanistan, which needs the development. But what is new about this announcement last night was the prominence that the president gave to India as a kind of necessary strategic partner for thinking about stabilizing the region.
SIEGEL: Are India-Pakistan relations seen by those two countries as such a zero-sum game that if India has an enhanced role then Pakistan will likely see that as some kind of a threat?
AYRES: I think you are likely to see Pakistan view this as a threat, India not to view Pakistan as a threat in the same way. This is - it's a real challenge. I mean, I think what you're hearing from Pakistanis is this idea that greater Indian involvement is inimical to Pakistan's interests. But what do they really mean, greater Indian involvement in the sense of building a hospital or providing biscuits to an impoverished region or creating a road? I mean, these are all economic development efforts that I think anybody should welcome. Again, India's a major donor. Why would anybody begrudge the donation of resources to help support Afghanistan?
SIEGEL: How does the Indian government see the conflict in Afghanistan? Is it seen as a neighboring threat or as a great danger to them?
AYRES: Yeah, they see instability in Afghanistan as a problem for them and for the whole region, and they are concerned about it, absolutely. So what they would like to see is a stable Afghan government that's democratic. Ideally, if there could be the expansion of trade and commerce that could better link Afghanistan to India, you could have the ability of Afghan entrepreneurs to grow their businesses with India as this major regional market. That's a prospect that people have long flagged. I think you see and Indian officials see Afghanistan as a country with which they've long had very close ties. Many politicians in Afghanistan have studied in India, send children for medical care to India. I mean, there's a very strong relationship there. So they see this as a country they would like to see stable.
SIEGEL: What did you make of the - President Trump yoking together these two ideas - "number one, we appreciate India's important contributions to stability in Afghanistan" - I'm quoting from him now - "but India makes billions of dollars in trade with the United States and we want them to do more to help Afghanistan economically"? What do you hear when you hear that - those two ideas together?
AYRES: Well, honestly, that confluence of ideas was baffling for me. I mean, I welcome the idea of the United States giving India a more prominent place in the way we talk about a regional strategy for Afghanistan. But at the same time, I just don't really see what the trade deficit between India and the United States has to do with India's development assistance in Afghanistan. So that struck me as a kind of strange kind of pulling together of two separate ideas and trying to create a kind of third hybrid. I don't think these are related thoughts.
SIEGEL: You think it's as if to say, you make some money off business with us, we need your help in Afghanistan?
AYRES: Yeah, I don't even think these are related.
SIEGEL: Overall, what did you think of the speech?
AYRES: I was surprised that it was very much a kind of standard American foreign policy speech. We now appear to have an Afghanistan strategy that in many ways continues different trajectories from the past but kind of shifts gears slightly on some key areas.
SIEGEL: Alyssa Ayres of the Council on Foreign Relations, thanks.
AYRES: Thank you.
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