Upset with delay, Kabul shelves request for arms aid from Delhi

The freeze on the aid request, reflected President Ghani’s belief that outreach to India would poison country’s relationship with Pakistan.

Written by Praveen Swami | New Delhi | Published:October 30, 2014 3:47 am

Frustrated with India’s failure to deliver long-promised military aid, new Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has told New Delhi that he wishes to revisit his predecessor’s request for assistance, diplomatic sources have told The Indian Express. President Ghani’s decision to place Afghanistan’s arms-aid request on hold, the sources said, had been conveyed to negotiators from the Ministry of External Affairs earlier this month.

The freeze on the aid request, a government source in Kabul said, reflected President Ghani’s belief that the outreach to India would poison the country’s relationship with Pakistan, without yielding any dividends in return.

New Delhi was reported to have firmed up plans in February to pay Russian firms to supply Afghanistan’s armed forces with small arms, field mortar and air support platforms — much as it backed anti-Taliban warlord Ahmad Shah Masood in his battle against the Taliban before 9/11.

No equipment has, however, been delivered so far. The Ministry of External Affairs did not respond to requests for comment from The Indian Express.

Sushant Sareen, an analyst at the New Delhi-based think tank Vivekananda International Foundation, said the Afghan move showed President Ghani “is doing the same his predecessor first did, and betting on appeasing Pakistan”. “This should also be a lesson to us that delayed decisions mean lost opportunities,” he said.

Ghani’s predecessor Hamid Karzai had first requested Indian military aid in 2012, invoking a strategic partnership agreement, which commits New Delhi to assist in “the training, equipping and capacity building programmes for [the] Afghan National Security Forces”. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government, however, stalled Karzai’s request, fearing arms aid to Afghanistan would complicate peace talks with Pakistan.

In February, the then External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid had said that India would deliver helicopters desperately needed by the Afghan air force “very soon”. “We have also been giving them some logistical support and we hopefully will be able to upgrade and refurbish their transport aircraft,” he had said.

Karzai had sought helicopters for Afghanistan’s fledgling military, badly hit after the Pentagon terminated contracts of Russian-made Mi-17s, saying the contractor was in violation of sanctions against President Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria. India agreed to supply two Cheetah light helicopters, which were to have been delivered in May 2014 but have not yet arrived.

New Delhi’s assistance was also sought to refit six ageing An-32 transport aircraft in Ukraine, where the Indian Air Force is now upgrading its own fleet. Afghanistan has received four modern C-130 transport aircraft from the US, but an earlier $500 million contract for the supply of 20 second-hand Italian-made C-27A aircraft had to be scrapped amidst problems with maintenance and spare parts.

Finally, Afghanistan sought A2.A18 105-milimetre howitzers, light artillery that has served the Indian Army for decades in the mountains and is now in the process of being phased out. The Afghan army now has an estimated 84 second-hand A2.A18s — donated by Slovakia and Bosnia — but needs greater numbers for its expanding mountain counter-insurgency units.

International observers have become increasingly concerned about the ability of the Afghan army to hold in the face of Taliban attack in the coming years, a fear underlined by the collapse of similar multi-ethnic, US-trained forces in Iraq. Afghanistan’s government does not have the revenues to meet the costs of maintaining an army, estimated at $ 4.7 billion a year.

North Atlantic Treaty Organisation donor states agreed in 2012 to meet the costs of the Afghan army until 2017, but also sought “gradual, managed force reduction” to about 2,28,500. Kabul fears the social consequences of putting over 100,000 trained soldiers out of jobs, and worries that recession in the West could lead to a further scaling back of support.

In addition, Afghanistan’s army is riven by the same ethnic tensions as the country. The army’s strength is 38 per cent ethnic Pashtuns, 25 per cent Tajik, 19 per cent Hazara and 12 per cent Uzbek. In the event international funding for the forces dries up after 2014, the army could start collapsing back into the warlord militia organisations from which it was initially drawn.