India’s choices as America ‘asks’

The government will have to take a call, and quick, on how to engage with the U.S. on Afghanistan

During his inaugural address in January 1961, U.S. President John F. Kennedy famously asked his fellow Americans: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” In 2017, it is a question that U.S. President Donald Trump is posing to the world, as he begins to set his imprint on American foreign policy. In the past few weeks, the one campaign promise Mr. Trump’s actions have held fast to is “America First” and to make every other country “pay its dues”. As a result, he has backed away from his earlier tough position on declaring China a “currency manipulator” after his meeting with President Xi Jinping, but the quid pro quo is clear: China must rein in North Korea, particularly its plans for a nuclear test.

Asked to pay up

Mr. Trump’s decision to dispatch Vice President Mike Pence, Defence Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to meet allies in Europe and Asia was received with a sense of relief after worries that he would retrench America’s presence globally. But the message of reassurance came with a rider, as Mr. Trump met NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg this month and then with Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni, and stressed the need for NATO allies to “pay what they owe”, 2% of their GDP, for security. Similar messages were pressed home to Japan, South Korea and Australia. Despite bombing a Syrian airbase, as reprisal for what it said was a chemical attack by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, America’s engagement in the region hasn’t increased either. Mr. Trump’s meetings with Egyptian, Jordanian and Turkish leaders all contained a common demand: that each of their countries step up its fight to counter the Islamic State (IS) in the region. Security Council representatives visiting the White House this week were reminded that the U.S. pays for 22% of the UN’s budget and almost 30% for UN peacekeeping. Mr. Trump termed this “unfair”. It is in this context that last week’s visit to the region by U.S. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster must be studied. To begin with, the timing of the visit seemed linked to the bombing of what the U.S. Army claimed were hideouts of IS-Khorasan (IS-K) terrorists in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province, using what they crudely referred to as the “mother of all bombs” (MOAB), the GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast bomb. Those hoping the bombing meant the U.S. was now showing an interest in its commitment to security in Afghanistan hoped too early, as the bombing has not been followed by any clarification of U.S. strategy. Instead, once the dust settles in Nangarhar, and the U.S. reverts control of the areas pounded by the largest non-nuclear weapon in the American arsenal, a closer analysis of what was achieved will be necessary. If anything, bombing IS-K targets at that time took the focus away from the Taliban, which then carried out their single most deadly attack on the Afghan Army in the past decade and a half at the Mazar-e-Sharif military base.

Cost-benefit analyses

Setting aside the MOAB debate, however, Gen. McMaster’s visit to Kabul, Islamabad and New Delhi fits into the pattern of the Trump administration’s foreign policy mantra: Ask not what the U.S. can do for Afghanistan, he is understood to have told his interlocutors, ask what you can do for the U.S. in Afghanistan. Even in his apparently rough dealings with the Pakistani generals, Gen. McMaster pushed for action against groups operating in Afghanistan, avoiding the language of the Obama administration, that included the Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Jaish-e-Mohammad in their public comments on Pakistan. It would be safe to assume that given the pattern of the past few weeks, the question “ask not…” will also be put in far clearer terms by Mr. Trump to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, when he visits the White House, as he is expected to later this summer. For India, then, the challenge is twofold: to decide not just what, if anything, it is prepared to do to help the U.S. in security and peacekeeping efforts in Afghanistan, but also what it would like to see in clear terms in return. The former has been debated in hushed tones since September 2015, when Mr. Obama is understood to have asked India for a commitment on defence participation in Afghanistan. While “boots on the ground” leads to instant recoil in India, and even the Afghan government has repeatedly said it does not require any more foreign presence, there are other ways India is going to be asked to contribute: from providing defence equipment, to training soldiers in Afghanistan (as opposed to in India, where at present capacity, only about 300 Afghan soldiers are being trained), as well as technical teams on the ground to repair and maintain military hardware. From the American perspective, given the growing attrition of Afghan Army forces and uptick in violence in 2016, the need for more assistance from India is clear. As a western diplomat said recently, “Mr. Modi must know that his meeting with Mr. Trump is a ‘Yes or No’ moment. If it is Yes, he will have to deliver quickly. If it is No, that too will have deep consequences.” Hedging in the manner Delhi was earlier able to do over joint patrols in the Indo-Pacific may no longer be an option.

Fast-forward on pacts

Apart from Afghanistan, it is also clear that defence ties will drive the India-U.S. relationship for the foreseeable future. The U.S. wants India to move quickly on the other ‘foundational agreements’, the Communications Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement and Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geo-spatial Cooperation as India completes formalities for the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement this week. On hardware too, there will be the “ask”, as the U.S. looks for Indian defence purchases, and “America First” clashes with “Make in India” about where that hardware will be built. India’s concerns on tightening H-1B visas will be met with the American demand that Indian multinational corporations and tech companies operating in the U.S. hire more Americans and give more concessions on trade and intellectual property rights. It is unclear whether India’s demands for American heavy-lifting on the Nuclear Suppliers Group membership issue this June or on climate change financing will be taken very seriously given Mr. Trump’s other preoccupations. In the face of this altered pattern of engagement that India must navigate with the new America, then, Mr. Modi has limited options ahead of his meeting with Mr. Trump: to coast along and ride out the impending storm of demands, or to reject the transactionalism inherent in these “asks from America” and steer his own course. In Afghanistan in particular, India must bolster its bilateral delivery on defence assistance, rather than be coopted in the U.S.’s plans which frequently change according to its own cost-benefit analysis. In so doing, India may also recover some of the equilibrium in its ties with other world powers that have seemed more distant in recent years.


1) Imprint

Meaning: The name of a publisher as it appears on a particular set of books; an occasion when an object presses on something and leaves a mark.

Example: The button had left an imprint on my arm.

Meaning: To fix an event or experience so firmly in the memory that it cannot be forgotten although you do not try to remember it.

Example: That look of grief would be imprinted on her mind forever.

Synonyms: Impression, Symbol, Signature

2) Retrench

Meaning: If governments, companies, etc. retrench, they start spending less money, or reducing costs; To remove a worker from their job as a way of reducing costs.

Example: The Company had to retrench because of falling orders.

Synonyms: Conserve, Save

3) Reassurance

Meaning: Words of advice and comfort intended to make someone feel less worried.

Example: Despite her father’s reassurances, she was still frightened of the dark.

Synonyms: Assistance, Support

Antonyms: Annoyance, Distrust

4) Reprisal

Meaning: Activity against another person, especially as a punishment by military forces or a political group.

Example: The attack was in reprisal for the kidnapping of their leaders.

Synonyms: Revenge, Retribution

Antonyms: Forgiveness, Kindness

5) Crudely

Meaning: In a simple and not skilful way.

Example: Crudely painted signs threatened trespassers.

Meaning: Rudely and offensively.

Example: He spoke plainly, sometimes crudely.

Synonyms: Clumsily, Rudely

6) Massive

Meaning: Very large in size, amount, or number.

Example: She died after taking a massive overdose of drugs.

Synonyms: Large, Enormous

Antonyms: Common, Insignificant

7) Reverts

Meaning: To reply.

Example: Please revert by email.

Synonyms: Degenerate, React

Antonyms: Develop, Continue

8) Pound

Meaning: The standard unit of money used in the UK and some other countries.

Example: There are one hundred pence in a pound.

Meaning: To hit or beat repeatedly with a lot of force, or to crush something by hitting it repeatedly.

Example: The city was pounded to rubble during the war.

Synonyms: Batter, Crush

Antonyms: Be still, Fail

9) Apparently

Meaning: Used to say you have read or been told something although you are not certain it is true.

Example: Apparently it’s going to rain today.

Meaning: Used when the real situation is different from what you thought it was.

Example: She looks about ten, but apparently she’s 14.

Meaning: Used to say that something seems to be true, although it is not certain.

Example: An 80-year-old woman was badly hurt in what the police describe as an apparently motiveless attack.

Synonyms: Allegedly, Seemingly

Antonyms: Improbably, Unlikely

10) Hushed

Meaning: Quiet.

Example: She stood up to address a hushed courtroom.

Synonyms: Silent, Close

Antonyms: Bold

11) Contribute

Meaning: To give something, especially money, in order to provide or achieve something together with other people.

Example: Aren’t you going to contribute towards Jack’s leaving present?

Meaning: To write articles for a newspaper, magazine, or book.

Example: She contributes to several magazines.

Synonyms: Commit, Provide

Antonyms: Disagree, Keep

12) Perspective

Meaning: A particular way of considering something

Example: He writes from a Marxist perspective.

Meaning: To think about a situation or problem in a wise and reasonable way.

Example: You must keep things in perspective – the overall situation isn’t really that bad.

Meaning: The way that objects appear smaller when they are further away and the way parallel lines appear to meet each other at a point in the distance.

Example: In 15th-century Italy, artists rediscovered the rules of perspective.

Synonyms: Outlook, Attitude

13) Attrition

Meaning: Gradually making something weaker and destroying it, especially the strength or confidence of an enemy by repeatedly attacking it; a reduction in the number of people who work for an organization that is achieved by not replacing those people who leave.

Example: Terrorist groups and the government have been engaged in a costly war of attrition since 2008.

Meaning: The people who leave an educational or training course before it has finished.

Example: The high attrition rates on the degree programs are a cause for concern.

Synonyms: Erosion, Abruption

Antonyms: Happiness, Strengthening

14) Assistance

Meaning: To help; If someone is assisting the police with their inquiries, it usually means they have been taken to the police station to be asked questions about a crime.

Example: The army arrived to assist in the search.

Meaning: The army arrived to assist in the search.

Example: Ozil has the most assists in the Premier League this season.

Synonyms: Benefit, Compensation

Antonyms: Damage, Hindrance

15) Uptick

Meaning: An increase in something.

Example: We can see some uptick in activity in the marketplace.

Meaning: A price or offer on a share that is higher than the previous price at which the share was sold.

Example: Even after yesterday’s uptick, the shares remain more than 40% below their peak a year ago.

16) Consequences

Meaning: A result of a particular action or situation, often one that is bad or not convenient.

Example: Not making a will can have serious consequences for your children and other family members.

Meaning: Not important.

Example: The money was of little consequence to Tony.

Synonyms: Emanation, Importance

Antonyms: Causes

17) Hedging

Meaning: The activity of reducing the risk of losing money on shares, bonds, etc. that you own, for example, by buying futures (= agreements to sell shares for a particular price at a date in the future) or options (= the rights to buy or sell shares for a particular price within a particular time period).

Example: Hedging instruments such as futures contracts are priced in dollars.

Synonyms: Avoid, Dodge

Antonyms: Meet, Release

18) Interoperability

Meaning: The degree to which two products, programs, etc. can be used together, or the quality of being able to be used together.

Example: This product offers direct interoperability with the major word processing packages.

19) Clashes

Meaning: To fight or argue; If two opinions, statements, or qualities clash, they are very different from each other.

Example: This latest statement from the White House clashes with important aspects of US foreign policy.

Synonyms: Disagreement, Argument

Antonyms: Agreement, Calm

20) Hire

Meaning: To pay to use something for a short period.

Example: You could always hire a dress for the ball if you can’t afford to buy one.

Meaning: To employ someone or pay someone to do a particular job.

Example: I was hired by the first company I applied to.

Synonyms: Engage, Appoint

Antonyms: Dismiss, Refuse

21) Concessions

Meaning: Something that is allowed or given up, often in order to end a disagreement, or the act of allowing or giving this.

Example: He stated firmly that no concessions will be made to the terrorists.

Synonyms: Yielding, Adjustment

Antonyms: Difference, Denial

22) Intellectual

Meaning: Relating to your ability to think and understand things, especially complicated ideas.

Example: I like detective stories and romances – nothing too intellectual.

Meaning: A very educated person whose interests are studying and other activities that involve careful thinking and mental effort.

Example: She was too much of an intellectual to find popular movies interesting.

Synonyms: Creative, Rational

Antonyms: Foolish, Simple

23) Preoccupations

Meaning: An idea or subject that someone thinks about most of the time; The state of being worried about or thinking about something most of the time.

Example: My main preoccupation now is trying to keep life normal for the sake of my two boys.

Synonyms: Fixation

24) Bolster

Meaning: To support or improve something or make it stronger.

Example: More money is needed to bolster the industry.

Synonyms: Help, Boost

Antonyms: Block, Decrease

25) Steer

Meaning: To control the direction of a vehicle.

Example: This car is very easy to steer.

Meaning: To take someone or something or make someone or something go in the direction in which you want him, her, or it.

Example: She steered her guests into the dining room.

Synonyms: Drive, Escort

Antonyms: Abandon, Obey