Debate over the security of Afghanistan after NATO forces pull out later this year is gathering momentum in New Delhi. During one of his trips to India last year, Afghan President Hamid Karzai provided the government with a military wish list, posing a challenge for the Indian leadership as to how to address the request.
One of the many strategies that New Delhi seems to be working on to make sure Afghanistan does not fall back into the hands of Islamists is to provide its government with military aid via Moscow. Even though the Afghan police and other security institutions have received training from their Indian counterparts, New Delhi has been apprehensive about directly providing Kabul with lethal military equipment because it fears they may end up in the wrong hands, which could damage its local reputation as predominantly a provider of developmental aid.
However, India is thinking of fulfilling at least some of Kabul’s wishes in order to maintain its strategic upper hand in Afghanistan, by providing military aid routed through Russia. Under the plan being considered, Moscow will provide Kabul with equipment such as helicopters, mobile bridges, trucks and possibly ammunition and certain artillery, while India foots the bill. This would not be the first suggestion that Moscow send its own military hardware to Afghanistan on behalf of a third party. Last year the U.S. was set to pay $1 billion for new Russian Mi-17 helicopters to be delivered to Afghanistan. However, the deal fell through after pressure on Washington mounted following allegations that the Russian firm manufacturing the aircraft, Rosoboronexport, was also providing weapons to Syria. The collapse of this deal was seen as a major setback for Afghan government forces.
Using Russia to provide much needed military assistance to Kabul seems to be one of the best options available to the Indian government at present. It means that no “Made in India” weapons will surface on the ground in Afghanistan. Russia is India’s largest weapons provider, making the transaction easier to orchestrate.
The Afghan National Army (ANA) and the Afghan National Security Force (ANSF) also have mostly Russian weaponry in their inventories. Many of their soldiers have had previous military experience with Russian weapons; hence, providing military aid via Russia makes operational sense due to familiarity of equipment. However, the ANA and ANSF face their own set of challenges with desertions, radical elements and fratricide (although attacks have been falling), among other problems.
Even as India may be preparing to enlist Russia in getting weapons to Kabul, the Ministry of External Affairs maintains that it is going to wait and see what kind of deal Afghanistan and the U.S. achieve over the latter’s troop presence beyond 2014 in the form of the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA), if any. The fact that U.S. President Barack Obama has now told the Pentagon to prepare for a complete withdrawal, leaving no troops in Afghanistan, certainly raises the stakes for countries such as India.
A good example of why India is worried about the security future of Afghanistan was highlighted in a recent charge sheet drawn up by the India’s National Investigation Agency (NIA). The document reportedly highlights the fact that senior members of the Indian Mujahideen (IM) terror group have joined Al Qaeda, and are fighting on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and in other areas of Afghanistan. Excerpts from the charge sheet published by an Indian daily also suggests that, according to intelligence available, some IM members have decided to go to Afghanistan every month on a rotation basis.
The NIA charge sheet offers a glimpse into New Delhi’s thinking—and its fears—when it comes to Afghanistan’s possible descent back into chaos, in which it is run by Islamists and terror groups with the possibility of Pakistan’s growing clout over such elements as in the past. On the strength of its intel, India has made known its serious apprehensions concerning a complete military pull-out to Washington.
New Delhi has also discussed the issue of Afghanistan’s future with its counterparts in the larger West Asian region. Diplomatic traffic between India and the Gulf region has been heavy, with high-level exchanges of diplomats and India actively participating in forums such as the Geneva II negotiations on Syria.
Two important visits to India this month where the issue of Afghanistan is expected to be a focal point are those of Saudi Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. Tehran has shown equal concern about the security situation in Afghanistan, while New Delhi and Riyadh now actively exchange intelligence.
The need to maintain stability in Afghanistan calls for a pragmatic and workable BSA between Kabul and Washington. This agreement could give Afghanistan the military assistance it needs via NATO itself, as it builds up its defences to challenge the threats it will inevitably face.
In the meantime, both Delhi and Moscow can join hands and constructively, under strict terms and conditions, provide the ANA and ANSF with the much needed weaponry. Without this support, and even with a minimal NATO presence, concerns will mount about the security of both Afghanistan and South Asia.
Kabir Taneja is a journalist covering Indian foreign affairs and energy sector for The Sunday Guardian, The New York Times (India Ink), Tehelka, The Indian Republic and others. He is also a Scholar at The Takshashila Institution.