India faces Afghan test, as ally calls for military aid

New Delhi fears significant military assistance to Afghan forces could create tensions with Pakistan

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:15 pm IST

Published - December 04, 2012 11:59 pm IST - KABUL:

Afghan military commanders and intelligence officials have begun urging India to provide direct military assistance to the country’s fledgling armed forces following a series of skirmishes with Pakistani troops this autumn, highly placed government sources in Kabul told The Hindu .

Key equipment sought by the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), the sources said, include medium trucks that can carry 2.5-7 tonne cargos, bridge-laying equipment and engineering facilities. India was also asked to consider the possibility of supplying light mountain artillery, along with ordnance, and to help Afghanistan build close air-support capabilities for its troops in preparation of drastic scaling-down of western forces in 2014.

The requests followed fierce fighting along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border that raged from July to September, in which both sides used artillery — and comes amidst fears that Afghanistan may be unable to hold together in the face of renewed jihadist assault in the run-up to the country’s Presidential election.

India’s Afghan test

For India, the Afghan military demands present a strategic dilemma, as well as the first real test of the Strategic Partnership Agreement signed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Hamid Karzai on October 4. The accord, Afghanistan’s first with any country, opened up the prospect of significantly expanding military cooperation far beyond training the country’s military and police personnel, India’s main contribution so far.

“India agrees to assist as mutually determined,” clause 5 of the section on political and security cooperation reads, “in the training, equipping and capacity building programmes for the ANSF.”

Now estimated at 3,52,000-strong, the ANSF cost over $4 billion to support—far beyond the government’s resources. Participants at the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s summit in Chicago this May agreed to continue to foot the Bill until 2017, but also sought “gradual, managed force reduction” to about 2,28,500. Kabul fears the social consequences of putting over 1,00,000 trained soldiers out of jobs, and worries that recession in the West could lead to a further scaling back of support.

Nor is there clarity on the precise nature of how many troops the United States will maintain after 2014, though its government has said some numbers of personnel will remain. Vanda Felbab-Brown, an expert at the Washington, DC-based Brookings Institution, recently warned that “if the definition of [the post-2014] United States mission then is only very narrow counter-terrorism for its own contingents and on-base counter-insurgency training for the ANSF, the United States may be severely constrained in providing crucial and necessary resources to the ANSF.”

Strategic dilemma

India, diplomatic sources in New Delhi said, however fears being sucked into a military relationship with Afghanistan that could enrage Pakistan — a country which has long worried that its northern neighbour could be used as a base for aggression by its historic eastern adversary. Islamabad has, in the past, alleged that India’s intelligence services are using Afghanistan to back secessionists in Balochistan, as well as jihadists fighting the Pakistani state.

“Frankly,” said Sushant Sareen, an expert at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses in New Delhi, “I think its worth New Delhi’s while to take the risk. Pakistan says it is happy for Afghans to decide their own future. It is time to put that claim to the test.”

President Karzai’s administration is engaged in a last-ditch effort to secure Pakistani support for the 2014 transition, by seeking its support for negotiations with Taliban leaders based in Peshawar and Quetta. Mr. Karzai has even offered Pakistan a strategic partnership agreement, like that signed with India. However, Afghan government sources said, the military leadership believe Indian assistance will be critical if these efforts fail — and snowballing violence within the country leads to future skirmishes along their border with Pakistan.

Fighting along the Durand Line — the 2,640 km frontier drawn by British administrator Mortimer Durand of British India and Afghan Amir Abdur Rahman Khan in 1893, but never ratified by Kabul — has erupted periodically since 9/11.

In the summer of 2003, the Afghan government claimed Pakistan established bases up to 600 metres inside its territory, along the Yaqubi Kandao pass. Even though the skirmishes that broke out were local, they set a pattern. In 2007, clashes broke out again when the Pakistan army sought to erect fences inside Afghan territory in the Angoor Adda area, along the border with South Waziristan. Like this autumn, both sides exchanged artillery fire.

The latest clashes, Afghan army sources told The Hindu , were sparked off by a succession of attacks by jihadist groups operating in the Kunar area, including the Lashkar-e-Taiba, which are alleged to have the backing of local Pakistan army units.

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