NEW DELHI/KABUL – India is quietly moving to qualitatively scale up military assistance to Afghanistan by restoring the Soviet-era helicopters and transport aircraft lying in the country.
Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will discuss a trilateral framework with Russia in next their meeting on the sidelines of the sixth Heart of Asia (HoA) ministerial conference in Amritsar later this week. The meeting will be attended by Russia as well, according to The Hindu.
There are at least 40-50 helicopters of various types and some An-32 medium transport aircraft which have been grounded from a long time for need of spares, the Indian daily reported on Monday, citing its diplomatic sources.
Kabul had long been requesting India for offensive military hardware to battled Taliban and other militant groups, and has several times presented a wish list of urgent military hardware. A revised list was handed over to India in August during the visit of the Chief of Afghan National Army General Qadam Shah Shahim and was discussed at the highest level during President Ghani’s visit in September.
Priority items on the list include utility and attack helicopters, tanks, artillery, ammunition and spares, in addition to help in reviving some of the Soviet-era equipment and factories in Afghanistan.
Last month, two Indian Air Force technical teams visited Afghanistan to assess the requirements for spares and maintenance to restore the Soviet-era helicopters and transport aircraft lying there.
The teams were tasked to assess the requirements and submit a report on what can be provided by India from its existing inventory and what needs to be procured from Russia which is the original manufacture of the hardware, according to Indian Defence Ministry.
A trilateral mechanism was mooted in 2014 in the backdrop of withdrawal of troops by the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) but did not make progress at that time due to reluctance of the then centre-left UPA government.
This trilateral mechanism between Russia, India and Afghanistan is highly likely to be effectively formalized with the restoration of grounded aircraft in the country.
‘No new hardware’
Afghanistan says the current assessment is specifically for spares and support for the helicopters and aircraft with Afghanistan and does not include supply of new hardware from India. “We are waiting for a response from India,” officials told The Hindu.
India recently transferred four Russian-made Mi-25 attack helicopters to boost the Afghan Air Force’s ability to assist ground troops fighting Taliban insurgents, and it trains hundreds of Afghan soldiers each year in its military academy.
While India seems to be open to supplying lethal hardware, involving Moscow is inevitable as most of the equipment is manufactured in Russia.
This was evident in the case of an Mi-25 helicopter that was grounded due to lack of spares which had to be procured from Russia.
India’s renewed support for Afghanistan will be especially crucial in the current context given the ongoing intensification of the Taliban’s offensive across the country. Campaigns in Helmand and Uruzgan provinces have particularly intensified in recent weeks, leading to growing concerns in Afghanistan that the government could continue to cede territory to the extremist group that ruled the country before the U.S. invasion some fifteen years ago.
The Afghan government lost control or influence of nearly 5 per cent of its territory between January and May, the US government’s top watchdog on Afghanistan said in a report, highlighting the challenges its forces are facing.
But the move to increase cooperation with Afghanistan is likely to aggravate fears in Pakistan of being wedged between two hostile neighbors. Relations with both countries have cooled lately.
India has contributed $2 billion in economic assistance for reconstruction projects in Afghanistan since the ouster of the Taliban from power in 2001.
And India’s actions have convinced many Pakistanis that it is trying to undermine and surround Pakistan with hostile forces.
U.S., Afghan and Indian officials allege the Pakistan military’s intelligence agency – ISI – covertly supports the Taliban insurgency and allows it use sanctuaries on Pakistani soil to plot attacks in Afghanistan, charges Islamabad rejects.
Although Islamabad has not clearly commented on bilateral ties between Afghanistan and India, it has warned against attempts to destabilize Pakistan, which, like its arch-rival India, has a nuclear arsenal.