After the recent visit of President Karzai to New Delhi, there have been a series of editorials and commentaries on the nature of the Indo-Afghan strategic partnership; Indian military aid to Afghanistan in particular. Should India consider this option and pursue it? Is it not in the interest of Afghanistan’s future? Will it not help stabilise the bilateral strategic partnership?
First and foremost, the request has come from Afghanistan. India has always taken pride in letting the rest of the world know that its support to Kabul is not in terms of what New Delhi wants, but rather what Afghanistan and its people need. If the primary objective of India’s aid to Afghanistan is based on what Kabul wants and the country needs, then why should New Delhi delay the provision of military aid to Afghanistan?
A distinction needs to be made between Indian military presence in and military aid to Afghanistan. In fact, Afghanistan would not be interested in an Indian military presence in the country - boots on Afghan ground has been discussed at length in India and the majority agree that it would not be productive. Besides an Indian military presence, there have been discussions on training the Afghan security forces. India has agreed to train them, and although Afghanistan would prefer to enlarge the scope in terms of number of officials trained, there has been a steady growth in the training process regardless. Generally, it has been accepted both in India and Afghanistan that this is much needed and on the right track.
The debate therefore is certainly not about Indian military presence or training. It has been amply discussed and has already been decided upon. The issue facing India is military aid to Afghanistan.
What does Afghanistan want, and for what purpose? Kabul wants to augment its counter-insurgency capacity and hence requires related equipment – from helicopters to communication tools. Given the nature of Afghanistan’s terrain and the extent of threats, it is important that the Afghan security forces are armed with adequate systems, and more significantly, enough logistical support for the forces that are engaged in the actual fighting.
Unlike the Indian case where India has desisted from using air power to fighting insurgency, in Afghanistan, perhaps it is a necessity. Even more important is to ensure that lines of communication are open to the troops that are fighting insurgency in remote areas. Given the geographical expanse of Afghanistan, and the writ of the State, such air support is vital for fighting insurgency. In India, the military and paramilitary are present everywhere and can comb the terrain inch by inch without losing physical communications with the base. This is not the case in Afghanistan.
If this is what Afghanistan requires, why is India hesitant in providing such military support? The reasons put forward do not augur well, either for the Indian image in Afghanistan, or the promise India has made for its strategic partnership. True, the partnership agreement may not commit India to provide military aid; but the agreement is political. So is Indian military aid to Afghanistan. Providing military aid is political in terms of showing solidarity to the Afghan government and its people. Precisely for this reason, military aid becomes strategic.
India would certainly not like to see an unstable Afghanistan in terms of its government finding it difficult to fight the insurgency. Especially when the international community has worked hard to build this force over the last decade and the government and its people are willing to fight. It would be a colossal loss if they fail because of lack of adequate military support.
It therefore makes no sense to ask what will happen if Indian military aid falls into the wrong hands. Will it be acceptable for India if the entire infrastructure and investments made so far fall into the wrong hands just because India failed to provide the right military support at the right time?
Finally, the foreign policy question; that of India providing military aid to another country. There are enough reports in the public domain highlighting Indian military support (lethal or otherwise) to the Sri Lankan government to fight the LTTE. If this could be done in Sri Lanka, despite opposition from Tamil Nadu and Sri Lankan Tamils, what stops New Delhi from repeating the same strategy in Afghanistan, especially when the majority within India would support such a move?
Another foreign policy question is whether such support would undermine Indo-Pak relations and offend Islamabad’s sensitivities. Such an argument does not make sense, especially when Afghanistan is requesting weapon systems not to wage an external war, but to fight an internal insurgency. A counter question would be – suppose India does not provide military aid; will India-Pakistan relations become a model bilateral partnership? Especially when Karzai is also attempting to strike a balance with Islamabad, the Pakistan factor in India’s military aid to Afghanistan does not make sense.
India should thus go ahead and provide the necessary military aid to Afghanistan.