On Monday, more than 85 nations began a meeting in Bonn to discuss the future of Afghanistan from 2014, when U.S.-led troops are scheduled to hand over security to Kabul.
But thousands of miles away, plans are already in the final stages of receiving Indian government clearance for an extensive training schedule for the fledgling Afghan National Army (ANA) at training institutions across the country.
The program is the first concrete follow-up on military-to-military cooperation under the umbrella of the Strategic Partnership Agreement that was signed between Kabul and New Delhi in October, when Afghan President Hamid Karzai was given a grand reception in India.
Under the agreement, India, which has the world’s third-largest army, agreed to train, equip and build the capacity of the Afghan forces.
Sources in the Indian security establishment familiar with the contours of the detailed schedule say Kabul and New Delhi have identified three areas to focus on, namely increasing the intake of officers in India’s premier training institutes; providing specialized training to middle and higher level officers already operating in the Afghan National Army (ANA); and training soldiers in counter-insurgency and counter-terrorist operations by seconding them to various regimental centers across India.
This will involve, sources told me last month, when I first did a report on the issue for NDTV, bringing to India more than 25,000 ANA officers and men over the next three years.Finalizing the schedule may take at least another couple of months, the sources added.
The military leadership in India and Afghanistan has concluded after several rounds of discussions that training the officer cadre won’t on its own be enough, since Afghan soldiers also need to be given the skills to take on the mixed role of counter-insurgency operations and providing static security three years from now.
At the same time, military planners have concluded that mid-level officers in the ANA need to be reoriented and given the training needed to assume leadership roles in the post-NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014. Accordingly, officers at the ranks of Lt. Col. and Brigadier will be provided focused training at three specialized institutions in India: The Commando School in Belgaum in south India, The Counter-insurgency and Jungle Warfare (CIJW) School in Mizoram, in northeast of India, and The High Altitude Warfare School in Sonamarg, Kashmir.
While the Belgaum School imparts soldiers and officers with commando skills over and above their basic infantry training, the CIJW, a 33-year-old institution in India’s northeast, has over the years perfected the techniques of counter-insurgency operations in varied terrain, and has trained contingents from countries including the United States and Vietnam. The High Altitude Warfare School, meanwhile, which is located in the Kashmir Valley, teaches basic skills to allow forces to operate in snowy and high altitude areas.
Initially, the plan is to train select officers and then slowly ramp up training to include small groups of soldiers, too.
But the bulk of the program will be concentrated on training and welding together company-level (100 men) contingents by basing them at various regimental centers run by the Indian Army to train new recruits into the force. These centers, commanded by brigadiers, are the first training stop for every Indian soldier before he joins regular battalions. The training is likely to last for six to eight months. So far, India has trained half a dozen platoon level (30 soldiers) groups from the ANA, but has kept this development well under wraps.
With 25 Infantry regimental centers spread across the country, India is able to train up to 2,500 Afghan soldiers simultaneously.Moreover, India has also decided to double the vacancies for fresh Afghan officer recruits in two of the country’s premier institutions – the Indian Military Academy at Dehra Dun, and the two Officers’ Training Institutes at Chennai and Gaya. So far, there have been a total of 50 seats on offer in these training establishments.
But there is reportedly an additional component to the training that Indian officials are reluctant to talk about – training by select intelligence officers in Indian Army’s Military Intelligence Training School, located in the western Indian city of Pune. About 20 operatives from the ANA are said to have undergone a six month intelligence course, with more on their way.
New Delhi has also decided to supply vehicles, information technology and sports equipment, a move seen as a paradigm shift in India’s approach to Afghanistan.
So far, India has concentrated on using “soft power” in the development sector, such as helping with the building of roads, hospitals and even the parliament building in Afghanistan. But by offering extensive training facilities for ANA, India has decided to ramp up its involvement, although it’s currently stopping short of supplying any military hardware. New Delhi has also decided not to send training teams to Afghanistan in view of the two attacks on its embassy in Kabul.
The Indian security and strategic establishment has been wary of discussing the Indo-Afghan military-to-military relationship, not least because of Islamabad’s sensitivities. Pakistan sees the growing relationship between New Delhi and Kabul as denying “strategic depth” to its army, and even as an Indian attempt to encircle Pakistan.
Veteran analysts and military officers in India for their part dismiss such fears. Former Director General of Military Intelligence in the Indian Army, retired Lt. Gen Ravi Sawhney, speaks for many in arguing: “India has legitimate interests in Afghanistan and Central Asian Republics and has every right to develop its relationship with any country in keeping with its own national interests.”
But Sawhney, one of the first officers to establish contact with Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance in the late 1990s and early 2000s, says he opposes any Indian troop deployment in Afghanistan.
“There’s no advantage in doing so, since India doesn’t have any direct land access to that country,” he says. “Our strength is the quality of training troops, and India is doing the right thing by concentrating on this aspect.”
As the United States and its NATO allies prepare for their drawdown over the next couple of years, the jostling for strategic space in Afghanistan by countries in the region is likely to intensify. By starting out early, India is trying to gain a first movers’ advantage. Whether it will benefit in the long run from such a significant investment of energy, though, remains to be seen.
Nitin Gokhale is Defence & Strategic Affairs Editor with Indian broadcaster, NDTV 24×7