The year has barely begun and US President Donald J Trump has already managed to annoy a country that is ostensibly a key ally, while also insulting a nation that his country invaded and ignoring recent lessons of history, all in practically the same breath. In opening remarks at a Cabinet meeting on Wednesday, which were recorded by cameras, Trump mocked India and Prime Minister Narendra Modi for “constantly telling me he built a library in Afghanistan”.

The US president was complaining about how much his country is doing to keep the peace and aid the reconstruction effort in Afghanistan, compared to other nations that are far closer to it. “You know what that is?” he added, returning to his remarks about the library that, according to Trump, Modi “constantly” brings up. “That’s like five hours of what we spend. And he tells it – and he’s very smart – and we’re supposed to say, ‘Oh, thank you for the library.’ I don’t know who’s using it.” He went on to ask why Russia, India, Pakistan don’t have troops in Afghanistan, unlike the US.

This sort of comment is par for the course for the US president, usually preceded or followed by a word of praise for the leader he is talking about and insistence that they are “good friends.” In the past Trump has called Modi a “fantastic man” before going on to slam India’s policies, and the Washington Post even reported that the US president “has been known to affect an Indian accent and imitate” Modi.

Almost every aspect of Trump’s remarks are a reminder of how Trump’s problematic worldview seems to be built on both an ignorance of history and a focus on short-term transactional gains.

  • Wondering why anyone would build a library in Afghanistan, and whether there is anyone to use one, is exactly the sort of thing one expects from a leader who can only think in terms of military or commercial victories.
  • Moreover, others in the US establishment, including Trump’s own Cabinet members have repeatedly praised India for its development efforts in the country, which go far beyond building “a library.” Experts also aren’t quite sure what library Trump is claiming Modi keeps talking to him about, since the billions India has poured into Afghanistan have gone to much larger projects including the Parliament building in Kabul, a dam, roads and much more.
  • Why is the US involved instead of, say, Russia? Answering that in full would involve having to recount the history of the Cold War, when the US funded mujahideen fighters to successfully push back against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which in turn would create conditions for the Taliban state that, after the September 11 attacks, prompted the US into invading the country. Trump later did allude to this history, but, incredibly, used it to justify the Soviet invasion of the country.
  • What about other neighbourhood countries like Pakistan? Well, Islamabad is involved in Afghanistan and is actually one of the main reasons the country remains as precariously poised, since Pakistan has frequently supported, funded or given safe haven to the Taliban, whom Trump referred to as the “enemy”.
  • And this, in short, is why India is not militarily involved in the country, since attempting to intervene would only draw Pakistan further into the conflict, when the broader Indian foreign policy goal is to let Afghans decide their own future for themselves.

Trump’s comments, coming with the usual exhortation of how good a friend Modi is, serves as a reminder of how confounding the US-India relationship is currently: sometimes warm and sometimes utterly transactional depending on Trump’s mood. As the US president’s domestic battles get even more stormy, it seems evident that New Delhi will have to prepare itself for even more tumult, and hope that the otherwise positive ties between the countries in light of China’s rise continue to grow.