In a recent deal with Moscow, India has agreed to pay for military equipment sourced from Russia to Afghanistan. The equipment will include artillery, helicopters, tanks, and armored vehicles. India will also pay to repair old Soviet hardware left behind after the Russian withdrawal in 1989. The scale and exact composition of the deal have yet to be announced, but it is known that the first order has already been placed. India had so far hesitated to provide lethal weapons to Afghanistan for fear of antagonizing Pakistan. However, the deal suggests a rethink in the halls of South Block on India’s role in the region after the ISAF withdrawal.
The reason behind that rethink is fairly simple: the winds of change that are blowing this year in Afghanistan. The ISAF is winding down its presence and a new president is about to be elected in the country’s first democratic transfer of power. These transitions have prompted Afghanistan’s neighbors to accelerate their thinking about the future of the region. India has frequently expressed a desire to see the emergence of a strong, stable and independent Afghanistan. With foreign forces no longer taking the lead role, the only way to ensure stability in Afghanistan – and by extension in the region – is to help increase the capabilities of its young army. Other interests are also at stake. Any economic assistance provided by India to Afghanistan would be stripped of meaning if the latter was not strong enough to defend the products of the assistance. Moreover, India needs Afghanistan to be able to defend the former’s business investments, stalled for nearly three years.
Considering these mounting pressures and the limited time available to respond, it is not surprising that India changed its mind on supplying arms to Afghanistan. The decision comes as a follow up to the promise made in the Strategic Partnership Agreement between the two countries in 2011, in which India agreed to assist in “training, equipping, and capacity building programmes” to strengthen the Afghan National Security Forces.
India has, however, played its cards close to its chest. Earlier in February, External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid, visiting Kandahar to inaugurate an agricultural university built with Indian aid, said that India would be providing helicopters and transport aircraft as per Afghanistan’s wishes. This was “consistent with [India’s] approach – building capacity, providing training,” he said. But he also pointed out that India was “not in the game of giving people large scale equipment which is lethal.”
Afghanistan had expressed an urgent need for military hardware, particularly after a few skirmishes along its border with Pakistan. President Hamid Karzai, on his visits to India, presented Delhi with a wish list consisting of T-72 battle tanks, 105 mm howitzers, An-32 transport aircraft, and Mi-17 helicopters along with bridge-laying equipment and trucks. Afghanistan has long expected assistance from India, making the case for mutual cooperation in the face of security threats from Pakistan.
From Afghanistan’s point of view, India’s deal with Russia is a welcome move. The ISAF drawdown has left about 51,000 ISAF troops in the country, down from 140,000 in 2011. Both France and Canada ended their combat missions early and the UK has withdrawn from all but one Forward Operating Base in Helmand. Around 335 military bases across the country have been handed over to Afghan troops, according to a statement by the Military Bases Transition Commission. U.S. officials have recently resumed discussion on how many troops should remain in Afghanistan after this year. This number might drop below 10,000, the minimum demanded by the U.S. military to train Afghan troops.
Afghanistan is running out of options for sourcing military equipment. The country has been pushing for a more modern force that can defend not only against Taliban militants but also against external aggression. Most of the hardware brought to the country by ISAF will be repatriated with the troops. Pakistan is already laying claim to some of the hardware that will be left behind. With many decisions still in the balance, Afghanistan has to look for other alternatives.
“The equipment profile of the Afghan army is almost zero,” says former Director-General of Military Intelligence (Retd.) Lt. General Ravi K. Sawhney, “But the U.S. is withholding equipment, even though Afghanistan means to use it only for defense.” To meet these added responsibilities and future challenges, Afghanistan has turned to India and Russia for assistance.
Diverting sales through Russia solves two logistical problems for India: direct physical access to Afghanistan’s borders and India’s own shortage of weapons. Moreover, most of India’s arsenal comprises Soviet and Russian weapons and under its sales agreements with Russia it cannot re-export these weapons to a third country. In fact, Delhi had long argued that contractual issues with Russian suppliers had to be worked out before any sale could take place, perhaps a convenient stonewalling measure. There is an added advantage for Afghanistan in this deal: some of the more experienced officers in the Afghan army are already familiar with Russian equipment from the Soviet period and will find it easier to handle them.
So what can we expect in the future? More of the same, say analysts. The new government in India is expected to fulfill commitments already made. Two options seem to have been ruled out: selling small arms that could find their way to Kashmir and putting boots on the ground in Afghanistan. Indian defense policymakers remain opposed to training Afghan officers on Afghan soil (also on the Afghan wish list) but some workshops could be held where Indian engineers could train Afghans in the repair and maintenance of hardware. Afghanistan has already asked for Indian help in setting up Base Repair Workshops. However, this remains a risky and expensive endeavor. However, work with ANA officers and soldiers in India could definitely be expanded to include special operations training and joint counter-terrorism exercises.
Cooperation could also be furthered along the lines of intelligence sharing, recruitment, communication and logistics, which would help Afghan forces in covert operations. Under the Strategic Partnership Agreement, both countries agreed to hold regular Strategic Dialogues “to provide a framework for cooperation in the area of national security.” The dialogue has yet to take place. India, which has a very well established army and a long military tradition, can help Afghanistan strengthen systems such as the links between the Ministry of Defense and Army headquarters and selection boards.
Also likely is greater cooperation between the new governments that will come to power this year in both countries. An increase in diplomatic staffing, to a level similar to that of the U.S., can also be expected. The deal with Russia is a clear sign that India will not abandon Afghanistan after 2014 and nor will it renege on its promises.
Niharika Betkerur is a Research Intern at the Observer Research Foundation.