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India Pursues Greater Military, Economic Links With Afghanistan

Jan. 2, 2014 - 05:10PM   |  
Closer Ties: Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, right, talks on Dec. 13 with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in New Delhi during Karzai's four-day visit to India.
Closer Ties: Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, right, talks on Dec. 13 with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in New Delhi during Karzai's four-day visit to India. (Agence France-Presse)
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NEW DELHI — With the pending withdrawal of US-led forces from Afghanistan at the end of this year, New Delhi may supply lethal weapons and equipment in addition to the $2 billion in infrastructure aid it has already committed to Kabul.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai, during a Dec. 12-15 visit to India, handed over a wish list of weapons and equipment, Indian Ministry of Defence sources said. The list includes tanks, artillery, mortars, a transport aircraft and medium-lift helicopters. In addition, Kabul wants India to help train its troops and Air Force personnel at Indian defense establishments.

“The two leaders also agreed on deepening defense and security cooperation, including through enhancement in training, and meeting the equipment and infrastructure needs of Afghanistan National Security and Defence Forces that would increase their operational capabilities and mobility,” read a statement from India’s Ministry of External Affairs on the talks between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the visiting Afghan president. “The two leaders also agreed to expand opportunities for higher military education in India for Afghan officers.”

So far, Indian aid has focused on building roads and infrastructure.

“India is already providing aid worth $2 billion to build infrastructure in Afghanistan, but New Delhi will use the new strategic partnership agreement to use Afghanistan as a bridgehead into Central Asia,” said Nitin Mehta, a defense analyst here.

India has helped landlocked Afghanistan build roads to the Iranian border to provide access to the Iranian port of Chahbahar, which India is helping the Iranians build.

“India’s interests in post-9/11 Afghanistan have centered on three broad objectives: security concerns, economic interests, regional and global aspirations. India has revived its historical, traditional and sociocultural linkages with the objective of the long-term stabilization of Afghanistan. As part of this effort, India has supported the nascent democratic regime, seeing in it the best hope for preventing the return of the Taliban,” said Shanthie Mariet D’Souza, a research fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies, Singapore.

The withdrawal of allied forces from Afghanistan could create a vacuum and lead to instability, said a diplomat with the Afghan Embassy here. It is in the interest of everybody in the region to see a stable Afghanistan, the diplomat added.

India wants Afghanistan to create a direct link with Central Asia, analysts said. The subject was discussed at length during Karzai’s visit here, a foreign ministry official said.

“The two leaders also agreed to work with the Islamic Republic of Iran for development of new trade routes to facilitate trade and transit to Afghanistan and beyond,” according to a Ministry of External Affairs statement.

While Indian analysts have generally supported establishing strategic ties with Afghanistan, the supply of lethal weapons has not been universally welcomed.

A Ministry of External Affairs official said a plan is being developed to increase military-to-military cooperation as part of the strategic partnership agreement signed in 2013. India also is pursuing economic ties on a business-to-business level, with Afghanistan claiming that in the fields of mining and infrastructure alone, there is about $25 billion in work available, the official added.

Some dispute whether India can quickly gain an economic foothold when the US-led forces depart, and analysts have questioned the wisdom of selling any heavy weaponry to Afghanistan because of the likelihood of angry Pakistani opposition.

“India will not be able to sell the type of equipment that is reported to be demanded by Afghanistan for a number of reasons,” defense analyst Rahul Bhonsle said.

“Firstly, it would create a concern on regional security with serious objections from Pakistan,” he said. “Secondly, India will not be able to provide equipment [that it imported], as most countries have a clause restricting third-party transfer. Thus, only equipment manufactured in India can possibly be provided to Afghanistan.”

“At present, there is no support in India for sending military troops to Afghanistan,” defense analyst Gurmeet Kanwal said. “However, that might change, depending on the security environment after the drawdown of NATO-ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] forces has been completed.”

India likely would be unable to fill any kind of security vacuum created when most foreign troops have left Afghanistan, Mehta said. ■

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