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India-Russia-Afghanistan synergy: India to pay for Russian arms supplies to Kabul

Rajeev Sharma is a New Delhi-based journalist, author and strategic analyst. He tweets @Kishkindha and can be reached at bhootnath004@yahoo.com.

Published time: April 23, 2014 13:11
Afghan National Army (ANA) Russian made helicopters (AFP Photo / Massoud Hossaini)

It is a done deal and already under implementation, quietly but surely: securing India’s and Russia’s strategic interests in Afghanistan in the not-too-distant scenario of the drawdown of American and NATO forces from Afghanistan.

Under this historic deal, Russia will supply its own defense equipment to Afghanistan and India will pick the tab.

This way both India and Russia would be able to bolster Afghanistan’s self-defense capabilities and make Afghanistan’s armed forces more capable to take on imminent threat of the inevitable enemy: Taliban.

Both India and Russia see in Taliban a bug bear to their individual strategic interests. Taliban has inflicted deep wounds on India during its five-year rule in Afghanistan (1996-2001) that culminated in the hijack of Indian Airlines flight IC 814 on Christmas Eve of 1999. Russia too has its own concerns over the jihadists’ threat in Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia where Taliban continues to have pockets of influence.

Thus the Indian and Russian strategic interests coalesce over the post 2014 Afghanistan. Both of them want to see the back of Taliban in the Afghanistan theater. Both would be keen to ensure that Taliban is not allowed to have a field day in Afghanistan like it did in the past. It is in this context that the Indo-Russian deal of sending supplies of arms and armaments to Afghanistan assumes importance.

The Indo-Russian deal

Under this deal, India will be financing supply of Russian artillery guns, armored vehicles, tanks and combat helicopters to Afghanistan. Besides this, the two sides have also done an inventory of sorts of a number of old Russian defense hardware gathering dust in Afghanistan for years.

The idea is to service and repair such equipment and make these combat worthy. India would be paying Russia for this too. This will be a more economical option and provide value for money. Also on offer are a host of other activities. Russia will also do its own bit to take this process forward at its own expense. Both India and Russia will be prepared to consider Afghanistan’s shopping list pertaining to non-lethal items too.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has been pressing New Delhi for years to be more pro-active in its military cooperation with Afghanistan – both by way of training Afghan National Army in war games and defense supplies. India has dithered on both for its own foreign policy constraints.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (R) talks to Afghan President Hamid Karzai at his residence in New Delhi on December 13, 2013. (AFP Photo / Saurabh Das)

The role of the United States has been that of a spoilsport in this context for two reasons. The US has deliberately kept the ANA as a primitive armed force due to pressures from Pakistan. Secondly, the US has been trying to be too clever by half by keeping the Taliban in good humor.

Both these American strategies are not liked by India and Russia. Therefore, under the circumstances this arrangement of Russia sending arms supplies to Afghanistan and India paying for these supplies was the next best alternative.

A major concern of India in not supplying weapons directly to Afghanistan was that inevitably many of these weapons will be funneled back into India through numerous pro-Pakistan terror outfits which are active in many parts of Afghanistan. This would be a major embarrassment for New Delhi.

The Indo-Russian deal would be an effective way of nipping this inevitable problem in the bud. This was a solid reason for India finally agreeing to this arrangement.

Why can’t India supply arms directly to Afghanistan?

In fact, this is the main reason behind India taking this circuitous route to send arms supplies to Afghanistan with the help of Russia.

Those who are not well familiar with South Asian geopolitics and complex Indian domestic political compulsions and unwritten do’s and don’ts may well ask: why this circuitous route? Why should India pay for supply of defense armaments by a foreign country to a third country? Why can’t India do this by itself?

Well, the answer is simple. India had burnt its fingers badly in Sri Lanka when the then Indian government led by Rajiv Gandhi had sent Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) to Sri Lanka in the 1980’s. The IPKF eventually got sucked into Sri Lanka’s civil war and a situation arose where it turned into a bloody battle between Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the IPKF while the Sri Lankan armed forces stepped aside watching the unfolding drama gleefully.

Since then ‘once bitten twice shy’ India has been chary of involving itself militarily with its neighbors. India has consistently resisted requests to this effect from neighbors like Nepal, Sri Lanka and Maldives even though such a stance has been detrimental to India’s long-term strategic interests in these countries and has allowed powers like China to enlarge their strategic footprints in these countries.

The China factor

China is very concerned about the ‘T’ word and fears a situation where terror outfits of a jihadist variety entrench themselves in Chinese territory. That is why China is engaging with major powers that have stakes in Afghanistan in several trilateral dialogue formats.

It is no secret that China is apprehensive of Pakistan’s role, whether by double-speak or by Islamabad’s sheer inability to deal with jihadist forces in Pakistan, when it comes to counter-terrorism.

China has enormous economic interests too in Afghanistan, where it has made an investment of over $5 billion in copper mines. A stable and terror-free Afghanistan is in China’s interest as well. China is in talks with India on improving infrastructure in Afghanistan. Thus, China knows where to draw a line with Pakistan on Afghanistan, something that the US doesn’t do.

A camp set up by the Chinese mining company sits mostly empty near a protective wall a few kilometers away from an ancient Buddhist site where a religious community set up more than 17 centuries ago to exploit the copper deposits in the arid mountains of Mes Ainak on October 10, 2012. (AFP Photo / Roberto Schmidt)

Therefore, the Indo-Russian arrangement, the best workable Plan B to help Afghanistan build up its armed forces, should be supported by China too, whether overtly or covertly.

India and Russia are keeping the deal under wraps for obvious reasons. Thus specific details of what kind of defense equipment are being supplied to Afghanistan through Russia, what is the first order being executed and how much India would be spending under this arrangement are not available.

A key Indian official who is in the thick of Indo-Russian synergy over Afghanistan refused to speak a word on this deal when contacted by this writer. Silence, as they say, is golden.

Rajeev Sharma for RT

The writer is a New Delhi-based columnist and a strategic analyst who tweets @Kishkindha.

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