Dilemma faces New Delhi as key strategic partner’s request could alienate U.S.

President Hamid Karzai will renew his request for Indian supplies of lethal military equipment during a scheduled visit to India later this week, highly placed Afghan diplomatic sources told The Hindu. The equipment include 105-millimeter howitzers,An-32 aircraft and Mi-17 helicopters,

In a strategic partnership agreement signed in 2011, Afghanistan’s first with any foreign country, India promised to assist in “training, equipping and capacity-building programmes for [the] Afghan National Security Forces.”

However, New Delhi has stonewalled Mr. Karzai’s requests, first revealed by The Hindu in December 2012, saying there are contractual issues to be resolved with suppliers in Russia.

“I think it is high time for New Delhi to take a call,” says India’s former Ambassador to Afghanistan, Vivek Katju. “Procrastinating on a request for help from a friend in need sends an awful message.”

Military worries

Sources familiar with the Afghan military’s capacity-development programme say the country’s request is intended to bridge several key gaps.

India has so far agreed to supply two Cheetah light helicopters, which are expected to be delivered in May. However, there is no clarity on when the other aircraft will be delivered.

Earlier this year, the Pentagon terminated contracts of badly-needed Mi-17s from a Russian firm, as the supplier was also providing the equipment to Syria — thus violating United States sanctions directed at President Bashar al-Asad’s regime. India-provided helicopters could part fill a gap that is affecting troop mobility and casualty evacuation.

Afghanistan also wants India to have six ageing An-32s refitted in Ukraine, where the Indian Air Force is now upgrading its own fleet.

Afghanistan has received two of four modern C-130 transport aircraft from the United States, where crew are undergoing training. There are concerns, though, that the country will find it hard to service and maintain the expensive aircraft. Earlier, 20 Italian-made C27A, purchased for over $500 million, had to be scrapped after problems with maintenance and spare parts proved impossible to resolve.

Finally, Afghanistan wants hand-me-down A2.A18 105-milimetre howitzer, a robust and rugged weapon India has used for years. India is in the process of phasing out its 105-milimetre and 130-milimetre with state-of-the-art United States-made M.777 howitzers.

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.

Mounting worries

Mr. Karzai’s renewed request comes among mounting worries over the future of Afghanistan’s security. NATO’s troop strength, an official for the western military alliance told The Hindu, is scheduled to decline from the 60,000 soldiers who will be present at the time of elections scheduled in April, to 20,000 in September. It will drop further, to a still-to-be determined level of between 8,000-12,000 troops after that, serving in what NATO describes as a “residual support mission.”

The Afghan National Security Force’s strength, on the basis of commitments agreed to with a consortium of international donors, is expanding to 3,52,000, for which there are funding commitments running to 2017.

Funding for the Afghan forces, however, is contingent on the signing of a Bilateral Security Arrangement (BSA), which will provide a legal framework for United States troops staying on in the country after 2014. NATO is expected to conclude a separate Status of Forces Agreement once the BSA is signed.

Last month, Mr. Karzai summoned the Loya Jirga, or general assembly of elders, to discuss the agreed text of the BSA. The Loya Jirga approved the BSA, but the President still refused to sign, saying he wants further commitments to Afghan stability from the U.S.

“Frankly, a NATO official told The Hindu, “the deadline for this is February, 2014. If the BSA is not signed by the end of that month, when NATO Defence Ministers are scheduled to meet, there will be questions not just about continued military assistance to Afghanistan, but all aid.”

Eminent scholar Ali Jalali says, “I think there is a broad consensus both among Mr. Karzai’s opponents and supporters that the BSA must be signed. “The failure to do so is creating deep concerns about Afghanistan’s future among the country’s people.”

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