The pivot through Kabul

India’s growing arms footprint in Afghanistan points to an important future aspect of its regional power projection

November 01, 2016 12:57 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:29 pm IST

Illustration: Keshav

Illustration: Keshav

> We have a wish list that we have put before the government of India,” declared the then Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, on a visit to New Delhi in May 2013. “It is up to the government now to provide us according to their means.” Over the next year, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government decided its means were to be modest. It dithered, wary of provoking Pakistan further, concerned by where its weapons might end up, and pleading a shortage of stocks. In April 2014, it agreed to the curious expedient of paying Russia to supply small arms to Afghanistan. This was, perhaps, not so strange in light of a > North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO)-Russia agreement that same month to maintain Afghanistan’s crumbling helicopter fleet, building on earlier American purchases from Moscow. But it highlighted India’s cautious approach to over-militarising its engagement in Afghanistan. The arrival of President Ashraf Ghani later that year, and his outreach to Pakistan, rendered the question moot.

Bolstering Afghan forces But with that outreach now in tatters, the > Taliban rejecting peace talks , and Mr. Ghani turning back to New Delhi, the question of arms has come back on the agenda. > Three Indian-built transport helicopters were donated in April 2015. Over the winter of 2015-16, several attack helicopters followed. General John Nicholson, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, spoke in August of an “immediate need for more”, perhaps the most enthusiastic imprimatur ever given by a U.S. official. And now, Indian press reports suggest that New Delhi is “firming up” plans to send artillery, trucks, and — if you believe the headlines — T-72 tanks. There may be some arms inflation at work here. In fact, the Afghans seem to have asked not for Main Battle Tanks (MBT), which would be overkill for fighting the Taliban, but Russian-designed BMPs, which are quick, versatile, and lightly armoured vehicles for infantry. India has been phasing out its older variants and they would be understandably useful to an army haemorrhaging over a dozen soldiers a day.

Will this change anything? Since Afghan forces took the lead in fighting, the Taliban have gained more territory than at any other point in the last 15 years. This is despite the high level of foreign support that remains in place — 9,000 U.S. troops remain in the country. In June, U.S. President Barack Obama expanded authorisation for air power to support Afghan offensives, not just repel insurgent attacks, and for U.S. troops to embed with regular Afghan infantry, not just special forces. From January to October, there were 700 air strikes — 200 more than in the whole of last year — dropping about 1,000 bombs. While we should not ignore the important progress made in shrinking the Islamic State’s presence considerably, the Afghan National Security Forces have been rolled back by the Taliban in no less than three major provincial capitals: Lashkar Gah in Helmand, Tarin Kot in Uruzgan, and Kunduz in the north. Two other capitals, Baghlan and Farah, are also under serious pressure.

The political signalling At the strategic level, arms cannot compensate for more fundamental problems. Last week, General Nicholson highlighted the “failure of leadership” in the police and army, leaving young police officers and soldiers dying on isolated checkpoints without adequate food, water, or ammunition. These failures extend to the political level. This month, the Vice President himself, the controversial warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, attacked President Ghani for favouritism towards Pashtuns over the former’s own Uzbek constituency and threatened to “gather my people”. Mr. Ghani’s office retaliated with a threat to investigate Mr. Dostum’s personal militias operating in the northern Faryab province. In the context of these profound military and political failings, no injection of arms — whether from India, NATO, Russia, or China — will turn the situation around. They are band-aid on a flesh wound. Arms can make a difference at the margin, affording protection to some units where previously there might have been none. For an isolated patrol outnumbered by insurgents, the prospect of air support by an Indian-supplied helicopter should not be overlooked. But their real purpose is to serve as political signals of support, lubricating Mr. Ghani’s pivot back to New Delhi and ensuring that India — left out of the four-nation Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) on peace talks comprising Afghanistan, Pakistan, China, and the U.S. — retains influence over the direction of the conflict.

However, the three-year journey from Mr. Karzai’s wish list to India’s incremental gift giving also points to a broader trend. “We are well positioned,” noted Prime Minister Manmohan Singh three years ago, “to become a net provider of security in our immediate region and beyond.” Net security provider is a slippery term. Indian officials have emphasised soft security missions, like disaster relief and evacuation, rather than full-blown military intervention. Arms sales and donations are a halfway house, an arm’s-length instrument of national power. During 2011-15, the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council collectively supplied almost 70 per cent of all international arms exports. Arms generate revenue, of course, but they can also transform the balance of power, cement alliances, and — as India has discovered to its cost through its history — provide leverage during crises and wars. They are not without risks. Arms can be waylaid or even turned on their provider, especially where regimes change suddenly, and can render the providers awkwardly complicit in their use. Arms can also fuel conflicts, reducing the incentive on one side or another to negotiate with adversaries.

Growing Indian clout India is a small fish in this pond. But its clout is growing. > Indian arms exports doubled by value from 2012-13 to 2014-15 to over $200 million. The recipients included Afghanistan, Nepal, Myanmar, Vietnam, South Korea, and even major exporters like Russia, Israel, and Britain. Most of these have been spares and minor equipment. Last month, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a $500 million line of defence credit to Vietnam during his trip to Hanoi, building on an earlier line of credit two years ago for Indian patrol boats. Over the past decade, other Indian transfers to neighbours have included patrol boats, maritime patrol aircraft, radar, armoured vehicles, anti-tank weapons, and helicopters. India directly operates some of these assets, notably part of the coastal surveillance radar chain unfolding across the Seychelles, Mauritius, Maldives, and Sri Lanka. Beneficiaries have included every single member of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) except, of course, Pakistan.

How far will this grow? India has a long history of modest arms provision and training in South Asia and Africa, but by and large it has held back from game-changing sales that would have strategic ripples. Indian tanks went to South Africa and Singapore in the 1970s, but there’s little evidence they have been sent to anyone since despite reports of a transfer to Myanmar. There have been murmurs that BrahMos might be exported to nearly a dozen different countries, including Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, and the United Arab Emirates. This would be extremely consequential, not least if the missile’s range can be doubled as easily as suggested. India has also discussed potential sales of its Light Combat Helicopter and has ambitions to export the much-maligned Tejas combat aircraft. All of these platforms would affect the military balance more than a handful of patrol ships. India’s growing arms footprint in Afghanistan points to an important future aspect of its regional power projection.

Shashank Joshi is a Senior Research Fellow of the Royal United Services Institute in London.

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