Afghanistan has asked India to step up supplies of lethal equipment for its military, battered by a resurgent Taliban that has claimed the lives of more than 4,000 soldiers, and led to loss of government control in large swathes of territory. The request, diplomatic sources told The Indian Express, was delivered by Afghanistan’s national security advisor, Hanif Atmar, who visited New Delhi this week.
Atmar, the sources said, has asked for India to consider contributing to a long list of deficits in logistics and strike capacity, including training equipment, air and ground mobility assets, engineering infrastructure and light infantry weapons.
Last week, Russia’s ambassador to Kabul, Alexander Mantytskiy revealed his government had also received a request for “certain types of assistance free of charge”. The request, he said, was “under consideration at almost the final stage”.
Kabul, an Indian government official familiar with the talks said, had also requested China for military assistance. However, he said, Beijing had not committed to help Afghanistan, perhaps because of resistance from Pakistan.
Afghanistan’s search for assistance from old regional allies comes amid declining levels of Western aid to its beleaguered military-a 352,000-strong force, including 157,000 armed police, which the country says is unable to meet demands on it because of chronic problems with mobility and equipment.
The Afghan National Security Force budget, estimated at $5.4 billion, is expected to fall to about $5bn next year because of lower aid. The United States is contributing $4.1bn to the ANSF this year, but has requested only $3.8bn for 2016. United States military assistance to Afghanistan has declined year on year since 2011, when it touched a high of over $10bn.
Afghanistan’s NSA, Indian diplomats said, underlined the Taliban’s threat to the regime, describing its recent occupation of the city of Kunduz as “a disaster”. Forced to commit large numbers of troops to defending cities from attack, he argued, lack of offensive hardware and mobility had limited the army’s ability to stage offensive operations.
India deploys some 325,000 troops-not counting paramilitary forces and central police-in counter-insurgency duties in the 1,01,000 square kilometre Jammu and Kashmir state. Afghanistan has similar numbers for its 662,225 sq km-terrain far harsher, and worse connected by road, than Kashmir.
The United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan assessed that about half of Afghanistan’s districts have a threat level considered high or extreme. In addition, it flagged Taliban threats to key communication axis, like the Kandahar-Kabul highway.
India had promised, in a strategic partnership agreement signed in 2011 to assist in “the training, equipping and capacity-building programmes for [the] Afghan National Security Forces”. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government, however, stalled Afghan requests for military hardware, fearing they could derail its peace negotiations with Pakistan. However, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s government had placed the requests on hold after it took office, when it began a policy aimed at persuading Pakistan to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. Atmar’s request to India comes amid the collapse of the peace bid.
Now, New Delhi is in the final stages of negotiating the transfer of four Mi35 ground-attack helicopters to Afghanistan, to make up in-service losses to the six-craft fleet the country purchased in 2008. The helicopters were being Indian Air Force-trained crews.
Earlier this, New Delhi also provided Afghanistan three light Cheetal helicopters. The helicopter has proven to be effective at high altitudes, unlike the fleet of 16 United States-provided McDonnell Douglas MD530 scout helicopters, equipped with two side-mounted 50-calibre guns, that the Afghan air force now operates.
The MD530s, Afghan pilots have complained, has a low service ceiling, which means it cannot cross many of the mountain ranges around Kabul, and tail rotor problems that make it ineffective at altitude.
India hopes the Mi35s it is supplying will help provide Afghanistan’s ground forces air cover until it receives 20 Embraer EMB32 Super-Tucanos—single-engine, lightweight aircraft specifically designed for counter-insurgency operations. The EMB32 is capable of delivering precision-guided munitions and firing missiles.
For now, delays in delivering the EMB32 have meant the role has fallen on a fleet of 25 Cessna 182 commuter aircraft which some countries have fitted with missiles. However, the aircraft have proved unable to operate at over 4,000 metres—especially in hot weather.
India’s assistance has also been sought for getting Afghanistan’s fleet of mothballed Soviet-era Antonov An32 medium-transports back into the air. The United States had provided Afghanistan with several second-hand Italian-made Finemeccanica G222 transports. However, following years of problems with airworthiness, the $317 million fleet was sold as scrap, for just $32,000.
The country is also seeking access to India’s A2-A18 105 millimetre howitzers, a robust weapon the Indian army has used for years. The Afghan army has 84 A2-A18 howitzers, donated by Slovakia and Bosnia—while India is preparing to phase out the weapons, and replace them with the United States-made M777.