November 1, 2016
India’s growing arms footprint in Afghanistan points to an important future aspect of its regional power projection
“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.