Can India, at least this time, go beyond tokenism in supporting the Afghan National Army (ANA) in its fight against the Taliban? Will the Indian think-tank give up its measured approach while committing military aid to Afghanistan? And finally, will India take the lead in rebuilding ANA into a conventional army. These questions must be troubling the Afghan Army Chief General Wali Mohammad Ahmadzai, who has a planned visit to India.
India has stood rock solid with Afghan people by building critical infrastructures such as dams, roads, schools, hospitals, in the last two decades. However, when it comes to military support, India has been a miserable partner to Afghanistan. Though there is a “Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) of 2011” between the two nations, India’s support to ANA has not been more than a sham.
The period between 2001 to 2011- till Osama bin Laden was found and killed by the US special forces; India did not stand a chance of providing close military support to Afghanistan, because Pakistan used its proximity to the US in influencing the Afghan strategy. I remember that in selected contracts – we could not propose Indian managers for crucial roles. However, this changed post-May 2011 when the US found Osama bin Laden enjoying Pakistani hospitality.
In October 2011, India and Afghanistan signed the “Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) of 2011” and herein laid the opportunity for India. It should have stepped in and supported both the US and Afghanistan in rebuilding a strong ANA. Indian think-tanks would have appreciated the fact that a strong ANA is to India’s strategic advantage. But unfortunately, India missed the opportunity, or it gave it a pass.
Later in 2017, the Pentagon was asked by “a key Senate panel to identify ways India can play a larger role in providing increased and coordinated defence related support to war-torn Afghanistan.” It was “one of the 24 amendments moved and passed by the Senate Armed Services Committee.” Despite encouragement from the US and repeated requests from Afghanistan, the then Indian leaders failed to commit resources towards regional peace and security. In contrast, during the same period, Pakistan ensured that the supply of terror resources onto Afghanistan never dried.
So, what stopped India? To the best of my knowledge -the sole reason for India’s hesitancy in providing sophisticated military aid was – what if the equipment fell in the hands of the Taliban? Well, someone should have asked, what if Kabul fell? That was a bigger problem. Indian strategic thought leaders can best answer this question.
However, let us see what role India could have and can play in rebuilding ANA.
Supplying Military Spares
Until early 2000, Russian military equipment formed the mainstay of Indian forces. Similarly, the ANA too was equipped with soviet weapon systems- thus, they were familiar and well trained on it.
During the initial period of rebuilding ANA, it was difficult to find spares and replacements for small arms, area weapons like mortars, D-30 artillery guns, and Afghan Air Force assets such as Antonov and MI series Russian aircrafts. India should have stepped in and supported the ANA with supplies and maintenance. As a military contractor for the US government, I spent many years scouting for suppliers. All I could manage was some MI-35 helicopter supplies.
Timely Indian support would have made ANA strong and given the US military planners the much-needed flexibility in planning a smooth and phased ANA’s transition to the NATO weapons system. Moreover, this military cooperation would have proved a catalyst and laid a strong foundation for future Indo-US military collaboration.
Arming ANA with Decommissioned Military Hardware
When a country decommissions a piece of military equipment -it doesn’t mean a weapon is not battle worthy anymore. It is just that it has outlived its tactical use for that particular nation. As a result, nation-states buy and sell refurbished military hardware to augment their forces.
India should have refurbished, overhauled military hardware and supplied it to the ANA instead of decommissioning them and using them as showpieces in Indian military establishments. The US government would have paid for such equipment that enabled the ANA to take on responsibility for the US troops and reduce US battle casualties. This move would have helped India on two fronts. First, on the diplomatic front, as argued by Sanjay Badri-Maharaj in his article “Decommissioned Military Hardware- A Potential Diplomatic Asset for India”, published in 2017 in Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA).
Second, it would have saved the country millions of dollars in storage and disposal of the ammunition belonging to decommissioned weapons, as suggested by Colonel Kr. Partap Singh, a former Director in the Indian Army.
Have you ever wondered; what happens to ammunition or spares of a decommissioned military hardware? It does not end up in a landfill. Instead, it is stored, safe-guarded and then, over a period, destroyed. This costs time, money and resources to the country. Given the state of ANA in the past two decades- overhauled Indian military hardware would have given it the teeth to take on adversaries. Moreover, it would have instilled confidence among rank and files – overall ensuring regional stability. Yes, of course, to the dismay of Pakistan.
Taking the Lead in Building a Conventional Army
It was clear from the beginning that the ANA’s training was focused or say limited to counter-terrorism operations. India should have taken the lead to deploy military trainers alongside the US forces in Afghanistan to augment the ANA. There was this apprehension that Afghans might view Indian forces as occupiers too.
During my decade long stay in Afghanistan, I travelled extensively across the length and breadth of the country, including to provinces like Khost, Kandahar and Jalalabad. So, I can vouch for grassroot support for India. The majority of Afghans respect India’s positive role during their civil war and in rebuilding Afghanistan. In addition, Afghans fondly recall the time-tested relationship between the two nations that spans centuries. However, many also point out that India and Afghanistan were geographically distanced due to Pakistan’s creation.
Given the proximity of Afghans to India due to culture, tradition and familiarity with the Urdu/Hindi language- the learning would have been effective, economical and less time-consuming. In recent years, India did take small steps in training ANA officers in conventional roles-however, it was limited in its scope.
Now, what is next for India?
Time to Go Overt: This is not the time to be covert – go overt and provide all-out support to the democratically elected government of Afghanistan. When the Afghan Army Chief General Wali Mohammad Ahmadzai lands in India- he should get a list of equipment India can provide to the ANA. Let him pick and choose. The General knows the requirement better. Put in place infrastructure and resources to provide strategic advice to the Afghan military leadership.
Time Up for Playing Neutral: India is well aware that the Taliban will act in concert with its handlers in Pakistan to reverse all the excellent work done by India. Pakistan, like Duryodhana, will refuse even an inch to India in Afghan affairs.
Recently, Suhail Shaheen, Tailban’s political spokesperson based in Qatar, preached to India to remain “Neutral” by not aiding the Afghan government with military aid. India has been mindful of Pakistani concern; it was also careful not to step on the Taliban’s toes in Afghanistan. However, the time for being neutral is over.
“The Taliban has no intention and willingness for peace”, said Afghan President Ghani while leading an Eid prayer dedicated to the “Afghan Forces for their sacrifice and courage.” I doubt anyone in the region and within the democratically elected Afghan leadership ever believed the Taliban. Yet, the US forced the Afghan government onto the negotiation table with the Taliban and probably pushed for the release of 5000 Taliban prisoners.
While President Ghani called the discussion a mistake, when the dust settles, history will judge the current Afghan government favourably for showing the intent and taking steps to find lasting solutions in Afghanistan. Now is the time for India to correct a wrong – by supporting the Afghan government through enhanced military aids and advice. Otherwise, history will call out India for blinking on Afghanistan.
Decommissioned Military Hardware – A Potential Diplomatic Asset for India, Jan 2017, Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses.
Major Sunil Shetty, SM (Retd), is a veteran, journalist, entrepreneur, and startup evangelist. He was a US military contractor who successfully implemented numerous projects funded by the US government in support of ANDSF between 2003-2014. He is the founder of My Startup TV, an online channel for startups and MSMEs.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of Chanakya Forum. All information provided in this article including timeliness, completeness, accuracy, suitability or validity of information referenced therein, is the sole responsibility of the author. www.chanakyaforum.com does not assume any responsibility for the same.
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