After years or dilly dallying, India has finally taken in what can be termed as a “bold step” in arming the Afghan National Security Force.
India has announced it will pay for the Russian weapons being sold to Afghsnistan. This comes ahead of the withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan and the uncertainty about the future US troop presence in Afghanistan as President Karzai has not signed the Bilateral Security Agreement although the Loya Jirga in Afghanistan has approved it. The leading candidates in the Afghan Presidential elections have said they will sign.
India and Afghanistan signed a “Strategic Partnership Agreement” in 2011, the first the Afghans signed with any country. Among the other points in the agreement, the one of security stated the following
* Security cooperation between the Sides is intended to help enhance their respective and mutual efforts in the fight against international terrorism, organized crime, illegal trafficking in narcotics, money laundering and so on.
* India agrees to assist, as mutually determined, in the training, equipping and capacity building programmes for Afghan National Security Forces.
Afghan president Karzai on several occasions used this clause to get military equipment from India but India kept refusing it because it would “hurt Pak sensitivities”. As recent as December 2013 Karzai visited India and requested for weapons.
Karzai’s ‘wish list’ included battle tanks, field guns, mortars, military aircraft and trucks. Afghanistan asked for as many as 150 T 72 battle tanks, 120 (105 mm) field guns, a large number of 82mm mortars, one medium lift transport aircraft (AN-32), two squadrons of medium lift and attack helicopters and a large number of trucks. Afghans also want India to send personnel to train its army in Afghanistan. While India continues to train Afghan officers in India,it refused to send its personnel to Afghanistan. India also declined to give any lethal weapons to and provided only non lethal weapons. India has also refused to put “boots on the ground”.
The Afghans Army cannot stand on its own. It requires $5-6 billion a year to sustain it,an amount it can’t afford and looks at international community do help. If it signs the BSA with US, it will get relief.
It is in India’s interest that Afghanistan has a strong, well trained army. It cannot allow it to fall to the Taliban backed by Pakistan and go back to the 90s era where Taliban controlled Kabul. India has invested billions of dollars and continues to do so in Afghanistan. India has built infrastructure, schools,hospitals etc. India had considerable mining interest in Afghanistan. Recently signed an agreement to build a rail link from the Iranian port of Chhabar that India has built to Bamian in Afghanistan where India has mines. Bamian is the place where the Taliban blew up the centuries old Statue of Buddha. India needs a strong Afghan Army that can protect its investments.
It is for sure that Taliban and its backers in Pakistan will try to destabilize and take over control of Afghanistan post the NATO troop withdrawal. If the Afghan Army is well equipped to hold its own, the Taliban will be focussed on Afghanistan. This will reduce the chances of them being diverted to India as its being feared.
If the Afghan army is sufficiently sting enough, it would be emboldened to contest the Durand Line which they have refused to recognize from the birth of Pakistan. If this happens, Pakistan will he forced to focus on its western borders as it will face a big threat of its Pashtun population identifying with Afghanistan and look to break away from Pakistan. This can only mean that Pak will spend less time on India which means India can feel assured that Pak will not attempt any misadventure anytime soon against India.
The timing of the announcement by India to pay for Afghan weapons from Russia comes right after Afghanistan successfully held presidential elections amidst threats from Taliban. Its possible that India now feels sufficiently comfortable with the survival of democracy in Afghanistan and also the capability of Afghan forces in standing up against the Taliban. The decision to pay for Russian weapons should be followed by supplying other Indian made weapons to Afghanistan. India has a mature helicopter platform. The Dhruvs and its armed version Rudra can be supplied. India can also look to supply home grown artillery, tanks and other weapons at a later stage after supplying the T72s,105mm artillery etc that the Afghans requested. By doing this, India will be able to battle test its home grown weapons systems while strengthening the Afghan army with sophisticated weapons.
The move to arm Afghan Army comes late in the day but well in time. It shows the seriousness of India to protect Afghanistan, protect its investments and also deny Pakistan the strategic depth it seeks in Afghanistan. This is the last and an important strategic, foreign policy move by the Manmohan Singh government and the right one at that.
Yusuf Unjhawala. Administrator at http://www.defenceforumindia.com
On Twitter as @YusufDFI