India turns to Russia to help supply arms to Afghan forces

Updated May 01, 2014

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In this Thursday, June 13, 2013 file photo, Afghan National Army soldiers stand in position, in the Sangin district of Kandahar province southern Afghanistan. —AP Photo
In this Thursday, June 13, 2013 file photo, Afghan National Army soldiers stand in position, in the Sangin district of Kandahar province southern Afghanistan. —AP Photo

NEW DELHI: India has signed an agreement under which it will pay Russia to supply arms and equipment to the Afghan military as foreign combat troops prepare to leave the country, in a move that risks infuriating Pakistan.

Under the deal, smaller arms such as light artillery and mortars will be sourced from Russia and moved to Afghanistan. But it could eventually involve the transfer of heavy artillery, tanks and even combat helicopters that the Afghans have been asking India for since last year.

India has already been training military officers from Afghanistan, hosted a 60-member Special Forces group last year in the deserts of Rajasthan and supplied equipment such as combat vehicles and field medical support facilities.

But the decision to meet some of Afghanistan’s military hardware demands — albeit sourcing them from Russia — points to a deepening role in Afghanistan aimed at preventing it from slipping back into the hands of the Taliban and other groups that are hostile to India.

It comes as China, another big player in the region which borders Afghanistan via a small, remote strip of land, is preparing for a more robust role in Afghanistan, also concerned that the withdrawal of Nato troops will leave a hotbed of militancy on its doorstep.

Like China, India is unlikely to put boots on the ground to reinforce its strategy in Afghanistan. “We can’t commit troops on the ground, we can’t give them the military equipment that they have been asking us for, for all sorts of reasons including the lack of surplus stocks,” said an Indian foreign ministry official.

“Involving a third party is the next best option,” the official said, referring to plans to source military supplies from Russia for Afghan forces.

The lack of direct access to Afghanistan poses additional hurdles to arms transfers.

An Indian team visited Moscow in February to firm up the deal, the official said.

“We’ll work with India directly as well as trilaterally involving Russia,” said an Afghan official in New Delhi.

“Most of India’s weapons are made in Russia or co-produced with Russia, so it makes sense.

Pakistan is likely to be angered by any move to help arm Afghan forces, even if indirectly.

Asked about India’s plans to supply Russian arms to Afghanistan, Pakistani foreign ministry spokeswoman Tasnim Aslam said: “I don’t have any confirmation, so it would be premature to comment on it.”

A military spokesman did not return calls seeking comment.

Ahmed Rashid, an author and expert on the region, said the deal could aggravate relations between India and Pakistan if the arms supplied were heavy enough to be deemed “offensive”.

“Diplomacy and political dialogue are what will bring peace to Afghanistan,” he said.

“What is not going to bring peace is more weapons.”