Delhi’s decision to finance Russian arms supplies to Kabul is a significant new element in India’s efforts to cope with the consequences of the impending American military withdrawal from Afghanistan by the end of this year. After a decade of strong US military presence in Afghanistan, Kabul will soon be on its own in fending off the growing insurgent threat from Taliban. The Afghan armed forces have already taken the lead in securing the country and their performance has been impressive. But questions remain on whether they will be able sustain themselves for long, amid the declining Western support and Pakistan’s continuing sanctuary and assistance to the Taliban and other forces seeking to destabilise Afghanistan.
It is no surprise, then, that Kabul is mobilising all the support it can from its friends in the region, including India. Under the strategic partnership agreement signed in 2011, Delhi had promised to supply arms and provide military assistance to Kabul. As Afghanistan sought the translation of this commitment into reality, the UPA government was torn between keeping its word to Kabul and the potential risks of provoking Pakistan, which has long been nervous about India’s military footprint in Afghanistan. Delhi’s turn to Moscow for organising arms supplies to Kabul helps overcome two of India’s significant limitations in Afghanistan — the absence of exportable surpluses of heavy weapons that Kabul is seeking and the lack of easy physical access to Afghanistan. Selling arms to Kabul is a big and necessary step forward in India’s military cooperation with Afghanistan, which until now had been focused on training its military and police officers.
The next government in Delhi, which takes charge in about a month, must build on the current military initiatives in Afghanistan. For one, it can be bolder than the UPA in agreeing to train Kabul’s security forces on Afghan soil. It could also assist Kabul in building the much-needed Afghan air force. The successor to UPA2 should, however, be acutely conscious of two important realities — that Delhi is not in a position to replace the American military assistance to Afghanistan and that its pockets will never be deep enough to finance large-scale arms imports by Kabul. Working closely with others in Afghanistan, then, becomes critical for the pursuit of Indian objectives. India must complement its strategic collaboration with Russia by deepening military cooperation with Afghanistan’s neighbours — Iran to the west and Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan in the north.